The Museum of Geology acts as an official repository for a number of federal, state, and tribal agencies. This means we hold their fossil material for them. Space and expertise may not be available to these agencies, so we support them by doing what we do best, managing fossil collections. For example, we have extensive collections from the Oligocene White River Group of Badlands National Park. These fossils do not belong to the museum; they are still National Park Service property, and hence, public property. We are simply charged with their care.
Conversely, many of our holdings come from private lands, most notably ranch or farm properties. Much of the landscape suitable for grazing also holds the most productive outcrops. Fossils from private lands are a very different matter. If we’re working on private land, the landowner calls the shots. However, once the landowner signs a donation form, the fossils essentially become the property of the Museum of Geology. While still in the public trust, the museum is entirely responsible for their long-term care.
While the museum staff can completely dictate the “care and feeding” of fossils from private lands, they can often become slightly neglected portions of collections. Reposited fossils from our agency partners often require more of our attention. In order to satisfy our contractual agreements with these partners, we need to see to the constant care of these resources. Annual inventories are often required to insure we’re doing our job properly. These responsibilities are, however, often accompanied by assistance from our partners, in the form of funding or man-hours to help us maintain these collections.
Not the case with fossils from private lands. The long-term management of these materials is all on us. So, when we get the opportunity to devote some attention to these holdings, we jump on it. This semester we’re devoting considerable attention to some of the collections that were obtained from private lands. These include a number of very important collections, such as Cretaceous marine reptiles from museum volunteer Kenny Brown’s ranch, Eocene material from Raben Ranch in Nebraska, early Miocene material from Flint Hill, SD, middle Miocene material from the Bijou Hills, SD, and late Miocene material from the Mission gravel pit, SD.
We take our relationships with private landowners as seriously as those with our agency partners. Interactions with private landowners often result in long-term cooperative ventures and strong ties with the local community. Local ranchers and landowners often become our staunchest supporters. While paleontology is dependent on public support, private landowners are sometimes the backbone of consistent, multi-year collecting programs providing a steady stream of specimen and data acquisition essential to the science. We’d be entirely remiss if we didn’t show our appreciation for their contributions.