This theropod track is one of the most distinctive dinosaur footprints at the Fisher Mesa site. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Whether it was done out of ignorance or indifference, the end result is the same.

Someone took unauthorized plaster casts of several dinosaur tracks on Fisher Mesa last week, and in doing so, that person potentially damaged one of the most notable theropod track sites in the Moab area.

Manti La-Sal National Forest officials are asking members of the public to come forward with any leads they may have about the series of incidents, which occurred just off the main road that winds between the town of Castle Valley and Gateway, Colorado. The agency has already identified some potential suspects, but Manti-La Sal National Forest Recreation Specialist Autumn Ela encourages anyone who has more information to call her office’s front desk at 435-259-7155.

In a summer when “Jurassic World” has dominated the box office across the globe, the tracks are an increasingly popular destination for many visitors, and for good reason. They can easily find abundant signs of the three-toed theropod dinosaurs who roamed what was once a Jurassic Era tidal flat some 165 million years ago.

According to Ela, authorities believe that someone made their own casts of the footprints on three different occasions late last month. In particular, that person singled out an especially distinctive and eye-catching track that stands out from some of the other theropod footprints in the area.

“We think that’s why this one gets hit,” Ela said.

The tracks have been targeted in the past, but Ela said the latest wave of vandalism is unprecedented.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen it with such exceeding frequency,” she said during a June 26 visit to the site.

Until last month, Museum of Moab Executive Director John Foster said he hadn’t noticed any signs of vandalism at the site within the last three years.

In his eyes, the splotches that now mar the Entrada sandstone are by far the ugliest sight he’s come across during his visits to the area.

“This is definitely the most extensive mess I’ve ever seen anyone make of it,” he said. “Not only is it horribly illegal, but honestly, of all the materials they use, how do they think they’re going to get plaster out of here?”

That’s a good question.

From the looks of things, the person who made the plaster impressions tried to clean up after himself or herself, only to leave the site in disarray.

“They’ve removed the physical plaster from the track,” Ela said. “But you can see the splash and the mess they made around them.”

Foster has encountered such damage in the Copper Ridge area, where someone chipped away at the sides of a plastered track, leaving “furious” scrape marks.

Moab resident Lee Shenton, who is a member of the Utah Friends of Paleontology’s Gastonia Chapter, said that materials in the plaster can damage the seemingly sturdy Entrada formation, and the tracks themselves.

“The problem is that the plaster that most people would use encourages the degradation of the rock,” Shenton said. “The second problem is that it’s virtually impossible to get a plaster form extracted from a track once you’ve got it in there.”

When a track seeker attempts to pry, chisel or flush the plaster out, Shenton said that person further runs the risk of permanently damaging the paleontological resource.

“When it gets damaged, it loses its scientific value, as well,” he said.

For those reasons, Ela advises anyone who stumbles upon damaged or vandalized tracks to leave them alone. Instead, she said, they should contact the U.S. Forest Service as soon as possible.

“We’d rather just have them report it, and we’ll come up here and take care of it,” she said.

In this case, Ela said that trained experts will carefully go over the track site with brushes and chisels. Over time, she said, nature will take its course.

“These will recover,” she said. “It won’t look like this forever.”

To prevent further damage to the Fisher Mesa site, the U.S. Forest Service has installed video cameras in the area. Members of the Gastonia Chapter have also volunteered to patrol the site.

In the event that anyone is interested in making copies of theropod tracks for legitimate scientific or educational research, Ela said they are still welcome to apply for permits.

However, in this day and age, it’s less and less likely that people will take plaster casts of dinosaur tracks, given the advent of non-damaging laser technologies and other innovations.

“It’s not even a common practice for anybody anymore,” Ela said.

Shenton predicts that amateur paleontologists will soon be able to make use of 3-D printing technologies, as manufacturing costs decline and the products become widely available.

“Before long here, you’ll be able to buy this stuff commercially and not have to damage the print to get a copy,” Shenton said.

For now, Ela said that the most recent actions are so unfortunate because they take away from other visitors’ experiences.

“All they see is just a white blob and a shape, so that’s just really frustrating for others,” she said.

“It’s just really disappointing to see a mess on something that’s so special and unique,” she added.

The damage occurred just as the Forest Service is getting ready to move forward with its plans for an interpretive exhibit at the site. Ela said the agency hopes that the bulk of the work will be finished before the snow begins to fall later this year.

Shenton said he believes that educational outreach efforts at Fisher Mesa and other dinosaur track sites will be key to protecting the resources for future generations to enjoy.

“Hopefully, folks can understand that the Fisher Mesa site is not invulnerable to damage, and that we can protect it and maintain its value for a good long while if we just treat it with some respect,” he said.

Forest Service seeks public’s help in identifying suspects

This is definitely the most extensive mess I’ve ever seen anyone make of it.

If you have any information that could help the U.S. Forest Service identify anyone who vandalized the Fisher Mesa dinosaur track site, please call the Manti-La Sal National Forest’s front desk at 435-259-7155.