The Bureau of Land Management issued a statement acknowledging that an agency construction project damaged dinosaur tracks at the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite north of Moab. The damage to the site attracted national attention after outcry from paleontologists and experts familiar with the site.
Work on the project, intended to replace a wooden boardwalk on the site, was paused and a regional BLM paleontologist was brought in to assess the damage.
“He has preliminarily determined that some damage occurred to dinosaur footprints at the project site, and this is unacceptable,” the Feb. 9 statement says. “The BLM is committed to ensuring that further damage will not occur.”
The final paleontological site assessment is expected to be completed in three weeks. The BLM said they would review the recommendations from the paleontologist to determine how to proceed and conduct further analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act, which will include a mandatory public comment period on the project.
“Before construction resumes, the site will be surveyed, flagged, and the work monitored by an onsite, qualified paleontologist,” the statement reads. “The BLM has a responsibility to ensure this story is still told thousands of years from now, and the agency is committed to this future.”
The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite was discovered in 2009 when a Moab local noticed the dinosaur footprints while driving on a nearby dirt road. Further excavation revealed over 200 tracks representing several kinds of animals, some of which had never been documented in North America before. Paleontologists photo-documented the site and in 2013 the BLM created an interpretive trail with a raised boardwalk that allowed visitors to see the tracks without touching them, to protect them from damage. Interpretive signs were installed along the boardwalk explaining the significance of the area.
Planks of the wooden boardwalk warped in Moab’s extreme climate and were creating a tripping hazard to the thousands of annual visitors who explored the site. The BLM created and approved a proposal to replace the wooden walkway with a metal-and concrete walkway. In a review process required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the agency consulted with experts in various fields and planned to protect the site by flagging sensitive areas and having an expert conduct site inspections during construction.
However, none of the experts cited in the agency’s environmental assessment was a paleontologist; the local BLM office has not employed a paleontologist since 2018, though the Moab area is known as a destination for dinosaur and paleontology enthusiasts.
In earlier statements, the BLM downplayed observers’ concerns about potential damage. In a Jan. 31 statement just days after alarmed comments began circulating on social media, the BLM said that during the construction project, “heavy equipment is on location, but it is absolutely not used in the protected area.” Another statement on Feb. 2 said, “At this time, we have no evidence of any damage in the interpreted area, but out of an abundance of caution, a team will be dispatched to assess.”
At the same time, State Paleontologist Jim Kirkland, who has worked on the site, had visited the Mill Canyon tracksite and told media outlets that while the site was by no means destroyed, there had been damage.