Dino bone museums create local stars, boost tourism in some Western cities

The prehistoric past can enliven the present. When woolly mammoth bones were discovered years ago in my hometown in Wisconsin, they became the focus of one of our local museums. Today, they continue to attract visitors and serve as one of the city’s unofficial symbols.

Unfortunately, the story in much of the fossil-rich West is one of abandonment rather than local glory. In the late 19th century, paleontologists made huge finds in the region, unearthing specimens of famous dinosaurs such as Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, and Allosaurus.

But like many future movie stars, the Bones eventually left their rural locations to find fame in the big cities. Holes remained – literally in the case of the dinosaurs.

It took time for the West to stake its claim to keep some fossil finds at home. Countless fossils, for example, have been exhumed in Wyoming since the late 19th century, but the University of Wyoming Museum of Geology in Laramie did not have a single dinosaur specimen from Wyoming until 1961.

One reason was money. Even today, a city can sit right next to spectacular fossil deposits, but limited municipal budgets can make it difficult to keep the lights on at the museum. Funding for fossil collection, maintenance and research does not always coincide with fossil-rich areas.

Still, everyone wins when at least some fossil finds remain. In many cases, they were discovered not by paleontologists, but by ordinary citizens. In 2006, oil workers in Wyoming came across giant white bones, recognized their importance and called in experts. The bones are part of a huge 11,600-year-old Colombian mammoth.

Fortunately, this mammoth is now on public display at the Tate Geological Museum in Casper, Wyoming. The landowners whose property contained the mammoth bones carefully chose to donate them.

Once in local museums, fossil displays give people in the area examples of the bones they might come across and a place to contact if they find anything unusual. When fossil finds remain local, they also connect people to their prehistoric heritage and encourage them to donate finds to local museums.

But there’s more: fossils help the local economy by attracting visitors. Once local museums start to draw a crowd, they can help pay for themselves while indirectly contributing to schools and roads. According to the national group Americans for the Arts, tourism from museums and other cultural nonprofits generates five dollars in tax revenue for every dollar they receive in government funding.

Skeleton of Allosaurus jimmadseni as it appeared when discovered in the West. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Fortunately, much has changed since the first fossil hunters descended upon the West in search of prehistoric dinosaurs, mammals and more. Fossil fans in the West no longer have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see amazing discoveries made in their home states.

For example, in Ekalaka, Montana, population 399, the Carter County Museum hosts an annual “Dino Shindig” that draws paleontologists from around the country and hundreds of other visitors.

As Carter County Museum Director Saber Moore told the documentary series Prehistoric Road Trip, the Shindig shares groundbreaking science and includes the landowners who made the discoveries possible.

At the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, population 2,725, visitors can see fossils of small and large dinosaurs, tour active dig sites and even participate in the dig itself.

“I like that we’re a destination for people coming to Thermopolis,” said Levi Shinkle, collections manager at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center and a Thermopolis native. “We’re a small museum,” he added, “but we’re often in the same conversations as big museums in city centers.”

In North Dakota, the North Dakota State Fossil Collection strives, in the words of founder John Hoganson, to put “a fossil exhibit in every town.” The program helped place more than two dozen paleontological and geological exhibits across the state, from Pembina, population 512, to Lidgerood, population 600, to Bowman, population 1,470.

Sharing a home where dinosaurs once roamed definitely adds to local pride. When the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana acquired a second large Tyrannosaurus rex, they displayed the second in the museum as “of Montana T. rex,” and the other was loaned to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where it is now known as “of the nation T. rex.

Sharing the riches of the West’s past—right here in the West—enriches everyone.

NOTE: This essay is a product of Writers on the Range. Writers on the Range (writersontherange.org) is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to fostering a vibrant conversation about the West.

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