He digs fossils: Bill Hawes finds motherlode in Rio Blanco County

When he’s digging for fossils, Bill Hawes Jr. never knows what he will uncover. That’s the fun part.
For years, he has been digging and collecting fossils on private land in an area west of the Rio Blanco Store, on property owned by Gus Halandras. He is continually thrilled at what he finds.
“There’s an amazing assortment of animals and plants out there,” said Hawes, who collects fossils for a living. “There are a lot of scientifically important things found at the site, both animals and plants. You can find all kinds of interesting things.”
In fact, a colleague, who is head of the earth science department at a museum, said of a piece of rock Hawes had uncovered at the site, “This is the holy grail.”
The fossilized piece was of a branch with about five to seven leaves and flowers and about a dozen seed pods.
Hawes said the area in Rio Blanco County where he digs is unique because of the presence of porcelain shale.
“It is part of the Green River Formation, but it is the only place where I’ve seen the porcelain shale,” Hawes said. “(The area) is 49 million years old, but it is just like it was yesterday, geologically.”
Hawes has been digging in the area — called H&H Quarry (for Halandras and Hawes) — for 20 years.
“It’s a good place to dig,” he said. “It’s not a public site. There are too many rare things there. People should not take anything without me being there. I’ve put 20 years of my life into this.”
Hawes leases the site from Halandras. They are serious about protecting the contents of the site.
“It’s not a public site,” Hawes said. “I or Gus will prosecute (people who are found digging without permission). We don’t want to do that, but we will.”
Hawes enjoys taking people to the site to dig. But they have to have permission, he stressed. They can call him at (303) 895-5097.
“People can dig out there, but it has to be with me,” Hawes said. “I want to share this. I love seeing somebody light up with delight when they uncover something that nobody else in the world has ever seen.”
Plus, digging can be hazardous, especially when it’s cold or wet, and the rocks are slippery.
“It’s too dangerous to let just anybody in there,” Hawes said. “Rock, when it breaks, is as sharp as a razor.”
For part of the year, when the weather is suitable, Hawes lives at the site.
“I’ve been camped out there for months,” he said. “I have day camp out there. It’s pretty primitive. But I probably won’t be here a whole lot longer. I’ll be back next spring, as soon as it thaws.”
Hawes earns a living by digging and collecting on private land.
“I do a service for landowners, if they are interested, to see what they have as far as fossils, gemstones and minerals,” he said. “That’s how I pay my way.”
Collecting keeps Hawes on the move.
“I don’t live anywhere,” he said. “I live from site to site.”
With winter approaching, Hawes will be heading to warmer weather to dig, such as Arizona or Mexico.
Hawes is originally from western Washington. He has an Earth science degree from Cal-State Bakersfield.
“I don’t belong to an academic society or school,” he said. “I’m a freelance scientist.”
His discoveries sometimes find their way into museums.
“I have contacts with museums all over the world,” Hawes said, noting he has two displays at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
“Most of the pieces, the good ones, go to one museum, though I’m not able to divulge (where it is) without the owner’s permission, because it is a private museum,” Hawes said. “But it is open to the public; it’s available for study. In the near future, some of the pieces will be included in a display at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.”
Hawes, who is 56, has been collecting rocks since he was 2. He comes by it naturally.
“My dad got me into this,” Hawes said. “He was a game warden, and I would go out with him into the field.”
For all of the years he has been digging and collecting, Hawes was asked if he had a favorite.
“The scorpion would have to be it,” he said, which he found about 17 years ago.
Estimated to be 49 million years old, the scorpion is on display in the Prehistoric Journey section at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He named the piece Uintascorpio halandrasi.
“It was a way to honor to them (the Halandras family) for their contribution to paleontology,” Hawes said.
Another favorite is a fossil of a 3-inch pregnant praying mantis.
“My lady friend was digging with me and found it,” Hawes said. “I was proud of her. She had only been digging with me a couple of times (when she found it). It’s one of the best fossil insects I’ve ever seen. You can actually see the egg sack developing in the abdomen.”
Part of the allure of digging and collecting is unraveling the history of a site. For millions of years, the site in Rio Blanco County where he digs was covered by water. His fossil discoveries from the site have included flies, mosquitoes, ants, cockroaches, fish, frogs, tadpoles, katydids and, of course, the scorpion.
“All of the deposits here were in a lake, a basin,” Hawes said. “You find all kinds of interesting things.”
That’s what keeps him digging.