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By Pat & Niki Turner
RANGELY | They call him Walter, and they’re working as fast as they can to get him, or her, out of the side of a rocky sandstone cliff in northwest Colorado where he’s been for the last 74 million years or so.
“They” are Colorado Northwestern Community College’s paleontology team, made up of staff, students and dedicated volunteers.
Four years ago this spring, a dog named Walter—out for a hike with his owners— discovered an exposed dinosaur bone near Rangely.
“It was like a needle in a haystack,” said Liz Johnson, CNCC’s paleontologist.
A year later the team began the laborious process of extricating “Walter’s Bone,” or, more accurately, bones, by digging out the edge of a cliff with tools ranging from jackhammers to delicate paintbrushes. After nine months of work time, they’ve uncovered limb bones, most of the pelvis, nine ribs, part of the skull and are working on exposing the rest of the pelvis, the skull and the vertebral column. Walter’s shin bone is four feet tall.
Finding a fossil is not necessarily a rare thing in this part of Colorado, but finding a large dinosaur is. Even more rare is finding a dinosaur “with skin on.” Walter’s skin was preserved with the bones, an unusual occurrence in paleontology.
According to Johnson, Walter’s skin makes the find a rarity. “The amount of people who have touched (dinosaur) skin with their fingers is only in the hundreds. Maybe 1,000.”
“We call it ‘petting the dinosaur,’ for the kids,” Angie Miller, CNCC’s director of community education at the Rangely campus, said. She described the first time she touched the fossilized skin as “like looking at the ocean the first time.”
Through educational field trips to the dig site, Johnson estimates 500 people have had the opportunity to touch the skin of the dinosaur.
Walter is a hadrosaurid, a duck-billed dinosaur, though his specific species has yet to be determined. He was old when he died, based on arthritis and bone spurs found in his ankle joints. Conservative estimates place Walter at between 40 and 50 feet long.
Once the bones are exposed, they’re wrapped in a “jacket” of plaster and burlap, encompassing the bone and the stone and dirt surrounding it. The resulting jackets weigh hundreds of pounds. They have to be transported from the quarry site to the road, close to half a mile straight uphill. Johnson and Miller are brainstorming ways to remove the latest jacket. Last year they had a contest between the college’s sports teams. The CNCC soccer team won, hauling a 400 lb. jacket out in the fastest time. The latest jacket is going to require more than human muscle to get it out.
Once the jackets are removed from the quarry, they’re taken to the fossil repository at the CNCC Craig Campus.
The fact the fossils recovered in northwest Colorado stay in northwest Colorado is its own story. Fossils found on public lands are subject to strict standards. Fossils recovered from public lands are generally shipped to Denver or to repositories back East. When Walter was found, CNCC staff went to work to keep him close to home.
“What normally takes three years took us six months,” Johnson said. “BLM really wants education. They put it in their mission statement 10 years ago to fund paleontological education. We’re the only ones who have taken them up on it.”
The result of their efforts is at the Craig campus. “We now have a federal fossil repository at the CNCC campus in Craig,” Johnson said.
“We’re one of nine in Colorado and we’re the only community college with a federal fossil repository in the nation,” Miller added.
The bones recovered from the quarry are taken to the repository in Craig for processing, and will eventually be 3D printed so each campus has a replica to represent the program.
The paleontology program has offered community days every year since the dig began, for kids and adults, drawing visitors from California, Wyoming, Craig, Grand Junction and a few locals.
“We’ve had a family come up from Grand Junction twice in a row. People keep coming back,” Miller said.
There are risks to bringing the public out to a dig site, from the potential for vandalism or accidental destruction to fossils being taken from the site or nearby area by individuals, but Miller believes educating people about their public lands and about the preservation of the fossil record is worth it.