Montana State University paleontologist receives major award for protecting fossils on federal land

December 06, 2010

BOZEMAN, Mont. -- A Montana State University paleontologist who worked more than 17 years on national legislation to protect dinosaur bones and other vertebrate fossils on federal land has received an international award for outstanding service to the field of paleontology.

Pat Leiggi, administrative director of paleontology and director of exhibits at MSU's Museum of the Rockies, is the first person at MSU, the first Montanan and the 22nd paleontologist to receive the Gregory Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

"The Gregory Award is one of the two highest honors in our paleontology society, so it's a very big deal, and one that is very well deserved," said MSU paleontologist Jack Horner, a long-time colleague of Leiggi's since working together at the Princeton University Museum of Natural History.

"Pat has worked extremely hard for this legislation, and we are very honored to have someone from here in Montana receive this award," Horner continued. "Basically the legislation makes it easier for federal agencies to protect our fossil sites, and makes for fines that hopefully will deter potential thieves."

Leiggi, along with Ted J. Vlamis of Wichita, Kan., received the Gregory Award this fall during the 70th annual meeting of the SVP. Leiggi and Vlamis spearheaded the effort that resulted in the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, which was signed by President Obama in March 2009.

"I was obviously thrilled. I was just kind of tired because it took 17 ½ years to get it passed," Leiggi said.

Leiggi's journey to preserve fossils on federal land began with the 1991 discovery of "Big Al" near Shell, Wyo., Leiggi said. Big Al -- the most complete Allosauarus found up to that point -- was discovered by a Swiss team of commercial fossil collectors that had wandered onto public land. A joint team from the Museum of the Rockies and the University of Wyoming Geological Museum excavated Big Al from Bureau of Land Management property. The dinosaur is now reposited and displayed at the Museum of the Rockies, and casts are also displayed at other museums around the country. The Big Al experience, however, raised questions about why there wasn't stronger legislation to keep such a fossil in the public domain, Leiggi said.

The law at that time didn't refer to vertebrate fossils as scientific resources. They were commonly known as government property, Leiggi said. Therefore, if private collectors removed dinosaur fossils from public land, the law could only charge them with theft of government property. The penalty for stealing government property was far less than the penalty for stealing scientific resources.

"We were concerned about that," Leiggi said.

He was also concerned about private collectors removing fossils from the public domain by selling them on eBay and other outlets, Leiggi said. If that happens, fossils "do not benefit society. They do not benefit education. They do not benefit the public at large."

Vlamis' involvement was invaluable because he is an expert in the legislative process and knowing how to work with Congress and federal agencies, Leiggi said. He was a member of Sen. Bob Dole's campaign election staff and Congressional staff in addition to being an amateur paleontologist whose family owns the world's largest toy balloon company. Either Vlamis or Leiggi chaired the SVP's Government Affairs Committee from 1991 until this year.

The two originally thought it would take two to three years to pass the fossil legislation, but it took much longer because of changes in administration, staff turnover and the struggle to educate people about the issue, Leiggi said.

"It's not national healthcare or the economy or a lot of things that are on people's minds," Leiggi said. "You've got to get it on their radar and get them interested."

He and Vlamis emphasized the need to preserve fossils for future generations, Leiggi said. They explained that fossils are a proven window to science for children. Even if children don't pursue paleontology as a career, they become interested in science because of their exposure to fossils and dinosaurs.

Leiggi said many people, organizations and agencies were involved in writing the legislation and moving it through Congress. In the end, the legislation was introduced by U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii in the Senate and Congressman Jim McGovern of Massachusetts in the U.S. House. Leiggi said that U.S. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana was involved early on and was always supportive. But after Baucus left the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, his staff recommended that Leiggi and Vlamis work with Akaka.

Now that the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act is official, Leiggi said that he and Vlamis are still working with the U.S. Department of the Interior to establish the regulations that will spell out how the preservation act will be carried out and enforced. He expects the work to be completed by the spring of 2011.

Besides setting up guidelines for collecting and curating fossils from federal land, the legislation outlines prohibited acts and penalties. It establishes a program to increase public awareness about the significance of paleontological resources.
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The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has more than 2,300 members around the world. They include paleontologists, students, artists, preparators and others interested in vertebrate paleontology.

Montana State University

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