THE BIG PIG DIG OF 1993:DISCOVERY, LOGISTICS, AND EXCAVATION OF EARLY OLIGOCENE MAMMALS IN BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Scott E. Foss Badlands National Park Interior, South Dakota 57750
Early in the summer of 1993 a routine visitor report resulted in the largest paleontological dig ever undertaken by Badlands National Park. The report of a large articulated vertebral column, two large long bones, and scattered material, eroding out of the ground was taken seriously by park rangers, but although Badlands National Park is one of the largest sources of mammalian fossils in the world, the management was initially unprepared for such a large paleontological find. Professional knowledge, leadership, supplies, coordination by all park managers and supervisors, and many hours of labor were required in order to adequately address the situation. The park staff, assisted by South Dakota School of Mines and Technology paleontologists, the Badlands Natural History Association, the regional office of the National Park Service, and many skilled volunteers were able to successfully undertake the excavation of the many mammalian vertebrate fossils, which include Archaeotherium, Subhyracodon, and Mesohippus.
On Thursday, June 10, 1993, Stephen Gassman, a photographer from Elkader, Iowa, and Jim Carney, of Manchester, Iowa, were photographing the Badlands scenery when they serendipitously came upon a large assemblage of fossil bones eroding out of a wash. After taking many photographs, they made note of the location of the bones and reported the find to park rangers. The conduct of Mr. Gassman and Mr. Carney should be noted because they were able to relay this important information with a clear description and location without disturbing the fossils in any way, thereby preserving the scientific integrity of the site. Park rangers investigated the find shortly after receiving the report. Photographs were taken and notes were made, but the find was still not disrupted. The park, which did not have a paleontologist at the time, relied on the expertise and leadership of two volunteer Paleontologist-interns to investigate the scientific potential of the find and to recommend and initiate further action. Normally, a salvage collection is within the scope of an intern's experience and ability, but it soon became evident that this site was to outgrow the designation of salvage.
From the onset, there were considerations that made this site unique. First of all, it was located in a drainage directly adjacent to a country road, which had been redirected recently and the drainage contoured. The work had uncovered the fossils without actually damaging them which resulted in newly exposed vertebrate fossils that didn't show the damage of slow weathering. The fossils were in unusually good condition, but were only five meters from a well-traveled country road. The initial concern was to find out who had immediate jurisdiction over the removal of the fossils. They were within the right-of-way of a Pennington County road that intersects the park. Additionally, the Road-and-Trails Division of Badlands National Park is interested in any project that may affect water flow within a constructed drainage. A further concern was that the entire site was adjacent to a designated wilderness area. The success of the excavation was contingent on the cooperation of all parties involved. Pennington County, which has jurisdiction over the road, but not the fossils, indicated that there would be no foreseeable problems with the excavation, and in fact often stopped to survey progress and offer assistance or suggestions. The Badlands Road-and-Trails foreman, after inspecting the site, took interest in the project and offered assistance in the form of personnel and equipment on many occasions as the summer progressed. After checking maps, the site was found to be outside of the nearby wilderness area. Another consideration was that of security, including protection of the site from both intentional and unintentional vandalism and ensuring the safety of visitors who stopped to observe the excavation. This included an increased law enforcement presence as well as enclosure of the area by snow fence to keep a safe distance between fossils and visitors. Visitor interpretation was a critical component of the fossil excavation. Because of its proximity to a well-traveled road, many people stopped to view the dig. It was necessary to address the many inquiries by distributing handouts that outlined the direction of the dig and its importance. Initially, the excavation process was slow because workers were spending large portions of their time answering visitor questions. The Assistant Chief of Interpretation Division, Valerie Naylor, responded by adjusting schedules to provide a professional interpreter to aid with on-site interpretation. In addition to facilitating effective use of time for excavation workers, this schedule change provided the visitors with friendly, up-to-date information about the dig and the importance of paleontology at Badlands National Park. The office staff of the park played an important role in the administration of the site. Funds were secured to cover the ever-growing expenses of supplies and equipment. They also wrote funding requests and purchase orders, tracked accounts, and saw to it that supplies were delivered. In addition, countless hours were spent administering the site by both staff and volunteers. It was the responsibility of Paleontologist-inter Scott Foss to manage the site for the park and provide much of the leadership required to catalyze the above-mentioned logistics. Paleontologist-intern Kimberlee Stevens took charge of actual excavation activities and, after preparing the fossils, plans to work out the taphonomy of the site.
Shortly after the start of the excavation, it became apparent that outside advice and assistance would be necessary. The advice and presence of Rachel Benton, Park Service Paleontologist for Fossil Butte National Monument, allowed for an easy transition from the intern-run salvage collection to a fully controlled excavation to be directed by Dr. Phil Bjork of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Dr. Bjork implemented a new mapping technique which included the accession of vertical as well as horizontal information. The results, collected with new surveying equipment provided by the School of Mines, should provide useful insight into the relative positions of all the fossil bones. The day-to-day progress of the excavation was maintained by volunteers who engaged in the actual work of digging, mapping, jacketing, and fossil removal. Many of the park staff took an active interest in the site and offered hundreds of volunteer hours. Special projects, including the removal of larger jackets, were facilitated by equipment and personnel loaned to the dig by other divisions of the park. This enthusiastic response by all of the park managers and supervisors facilitated the success of the dig. The placement of the drainage culvert was a dramatic display of inter-division as well as inter-agency cooperation. After consecutive days of damaging rain, a drainage culvert was deemed necessary to route rain runoff around the site. With the assistance of Park Superintendent, Irv Mortenson, and Chief of Maintenance, Ted Haliday, large culvert sections and sandbags were purchased and delivered. A civil engineer was brought in for consultation, while the Road-and-Trails foreman, Lylle Amiotte, provided sand and personnel. Additional personnel and equipment were provided by the Buildings-and-Utilities foreman, Terry Saunders, as well as by the divisions of Resource Management, Interpretation, and Visitor and Resource Protection. For a few hours, the full park staff turned to the needs of the site. Virtually all park activity was suspended save visitor interpretation, fee collection, and visitor safety. Within a couple of hours, the drainage had been levied with sandbags, and water was routed around the site via the new culvert. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSM&T) provided many qualified volunteers, professional staff, equipment, and supplies. The fossils were carefully uncovered, field jacketed, removed, and transported to the SDSM&T vertebrate fossil preparation laboratory. Once prepared and catalogued, the fossils will be studied. Although the fossils remain the property of the U.S. Government, they will be housed at the SDSM&T where they will be available for research and inquiry.
The excavated fauna includes at least two relatively complete Archaeotherium, a nearly complete Subhyracodon, and many cranial and post-cranial elements of Archaeotherium, Subhyracodon, Mesohippus, and many as yet unidentified postcranial sections of Oligocene mammals. Vertically, the site is only a few meters above the Chadron - Brule intersection and so is assumed to be earliest Oligocene in age. The taphonomy of the site has only begun to be interpreted and much of the site has yet to be uncovered; new and exciting insights into the fauna and paleoecology of the Badlands can certainly be expected. The Dig also became a high profile paleontological event in the media with coverage in many states including South Dakota, Iowa, and Colorado. The coverage always portrayed a positive message when describing the role of the Park Service and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and their ability to manage such a large and complex paleontological find. This is in contrast to the negative publicity afforded the institutions, especially the Federal Government, as a result of their roles in other recent paleontological events in South Dakota. Badlands National Park benefitted from the "Big Pig Dig" in many ways. The Division of Interpretation was given a challenging concept to relay to visitors, while the Resource Management Division was enticed to further embrace paleontology in its present and long term resource management plans. The Ranger Operations Division was challenged to respond to new facets of resource protection, and the Badlands Natural History Association, which funded the paleontology-interns, found a new way to fulfill its charter goal of enhancing research and education in Badlands National Park. Overall, the dig heightened both the public's and the park staff's awareness of paleontology first hand during the summer of JurassicPark.