Fossil Hunters Discovery in the Badlands

THE NEBRASKA BADLANDS are a rugged, unforgiving and sometimes dangerous place. Stagecoach bandits, fugitive gunmen and desperate natives often found the terrain – if not inviting – at least a conveniently foreboding sanctuary when needed.

From time immemorial, lives have ended here, with the dead often left underground. An even more ancient epoch predates this Wild West.

Our Heritage Guest Ranch is a rock of the Badlands. Homesteaded by Swedish immigrants Andrew and Johanna Rosenburg in 1887, the ranch provided food and lodging to railroad crews toiling in the area all the live-long day. At night they returned for rest, a hearty meal and to have equipment repaired in the Rosenburgs’ blacksmith shop.

Ben Norman began working on the ranch in 1907 and married the Rosenburgs’ daughter, Hilda, in 1909. Generations later, their granddaughter, Jean Norman, and her family run this cattle operation where visitors can participate in the ranching experience. The Normans also have a bed and breakfast where they provide a hot meal and place to unfurl a bedroll.

Railroad tracks cross the Normans’ short driveway. After waiting for a long coal train to pass, its whistle whining through the rocky landscape, drivers can head south toward Crawford or north to Toadstool Geologic Park. We drove north.

The road, fences, distant power lines and reproduction frontier sod house are the only signs of man in this otherwise foreign landscape. The rain and wind erosion that made the toadstool-shaped formations for which the park was named have caused some of them to lose their caps. Vandals have played a part, too. The trails take us back 35 million years to the Oligocene Age, when camels, horses and giant tortoises grazed this area that’s nearly void of vegetation today. Fossilized fragments of those creatures and others are revealed in the Badlands only briefly following a rainstorm or spring thaw. If left to the elements, they are quickly lost to time.

At High Plains Homestead, a gang of fossil hunters finished a biscuits-and-gravy breakfast in Mike and Linda Kesselring’s cookshack. With canyons on three sides, the homestead’s 10 frontier buildings perch precariously in the modern day. Part hotel, museum and time machine, the Homestead has sketchy cell phone reception at best, and there are no televisions here.

At the head of the table of 12, a man with a large “S” on his chest provided plenty of entertainment. This superhero of paleontology, Frank Garcia, had each of this dirty dozen on the edge of their seats with stories of matrix moved, mastodons uncovered and saber-toothed cat fossils found.

The amateur fossil hunter from Florida first came to the Nebraska Badlands in 1979. There were great finds such as a chocolate-colored skull from an oreodont – a piglike, fanged relative of the camel – and jaw bones from the titanothere, an 8-foot-tall mammal with a forked horn on its snout. Garcia and friends returned year after year to hunt fossils on ranches owned by Jean Norman, Milton Arner and others.

The year 1983 began with a bang for Garcia, almost. Unable to find the owner of a tract of Badlands he’d hunted the year before, Garcia went fossiling anyway. When a man on a large, black horse appeared in the distance, Garcia assumed it was him. The cowboy, unsure of the curly-haired man wandering the Badlands on foot, was on guard. As Garcia approached, he found himself facing the business end of Merlin Kesselring’s lever-action 300 Savage. In the year since Garcia had been there, the land had changed hands, Garcia apologized, and Merlin, Mike kesselring’s father, generously allowed the prospecting to continue.

Garcia’s claim to fame came that same year with the discovery of one of the greatest troves of Ice Age fossils. After a dragline operator unearthed bones at Ruskin, Fla., Garcia, who lived nearby, was eager for a look. He was in the 12-foot-deep pit digging when a sudden thunderstorm poured rain in, eroding the muddy walls. In a lightning flash Garcia saw a layer of bones protruding several feet above him. After work by Garcia and 175 volunteers to excavate the find, a press conference and then interviews with Newsweek, The New York Times, CNN and NBC’s Today show announced to the world the discovery of thousands of Pleistocene bones representing 214 species, with 10 of the species being new to science.

With his paleontological legend set in ancient stone, Garcia had no difficulty recruiting paying clients to tag along on his Nebraska trips. Garcia’s book, I Left My Heart on the Arner Ranch, chronicles a quarter century of excursions to the Nebraska Badlands.

WITH THE LAST of the gravy mopped up, the coffee cold and Kesselring’s promise of grilled bison burgers for supper, the crew of fossil hunters headed out after their own stories.

A plume of Sioux County dust followed the convoy to Arner Ranch. It borders the Oglala National Grassland, where fossil hunting is strictly prohibited. A sign at the gate hinted at the rocky history between government officials and the fossil hunters and their friend, Milton Arner. The way Garcia told it, on one tense occasion, U.S. Forest Service officials came to the Arner place without a warrant.

The officials told him to take his knife out of its sheath and lay it down, and they took his driver’s license. They told Garcia that it was illegal to hunt fossils on government land. “We’re all on Arner land,” he replied. “There are no government signs here.”

One of the officers then pointed to a far hill and said there was an imaginary line, and that on the other side of it was government land. Then they drove away.

When the local sheriff declined to arrest the government employees for trespassing, Arner called Forest Service headquarters in Chadron and arranged a meeting. The “offending officers” failed to show, Garcia said. The next morning, Arner planted his red-and-white sign warning Forest Service personnel to stay off of his land.

Years later, this caravan of fossil hunters funneled from the plains, through canyons and across a seasonal creek. At the edge of Arner’s badlands, they spilled from their vehicles. Veterans – some of whom have been coming here with Garcia for 20 years – grabbed their backpacks and headed toward favorite fossil-hunting spots. Littering the ground were fragments of fossil tortoises exposed by erosion and weathered into chunks. The sweetest treasures are still intact, underground. Garcia showed his newbies what to look for. The novices flowed through the ravine, eyes to the ground in search of treasures nearly the same color as the soil.

“The key is to find a bit of bone just barely sticking out of the dirt,” Garcia said.

John Than, a herpetologist and marine biologist who has been coming here for nine years with Garcia, has located several fossilized skulls, including three-toed horses and a saber-toothed cat skull. He could easily have exhumed more on this trip, but he didn’t. Instead, he steered disgruntled novices to “the good stuff.”

It’s not surprising that Garcia’s other business partner, Greg Imhoff – the guy who had been hovering over a two-inch-long fossilized dog jawbone – is a dentist. “Look at how perfect the dentition is,” Imhoff said of the well-preserved teeth.

As Than patiently unearthed a skeleton on a narrow ridge, we met the amateur fossil hunters who had come on this expedition from across the country. There was a married couple from Indiana, Jessie and Lynn Strock, fossil hunting as a retirement present for Lynn. Marilyn Martin, a nurse from Port St. Lucie, Fla., was busy tracking oreodont pieces uphill, hoping to find the skull.

Another Floridian, Kim Westberry, wielded a muddy, 14-inch Bowie knife. The intent gaze in her eyes was not one to fear unless you were a fossilized three-toed horse intent on staying underground. “Once you know what to look for, it gets a lot easier,” said Westberry, who was here for the sixth time. She’s known to fellow fossilers as being lucky.

Luck is a good companion, especially since Westberry usually hunts fossils by diving into the alligator-infested Peace River in Florida searching for megaladon shark teeth, where her biggest find to date was 5 1/2 inches long. On this trip she found a complete oreodont skeleton. Underneath it was a perfectly preserved tortoise.

Despite her already impressive resume of fossil discoveries, Westberry still wanted to find a saber-toothed cat, 44 of which have been found on Garcia’s trips here. “Here kitty, kitty,” Westberry called. “There’s got to be a cat here. I just know there is.”

ONLY MILES AWAY but millions of years more recent geologically is another prehistoric wonder, Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed. In 1954, ranchers Bill Hudson and Albert Meng found bones while digging a pond. Nearly 600 skeletons of an extinct bison species have since been found, as have prehistoric, spearlike atlatl points. Was the herd ambushed by ancient hunters at this eternal spring? Cut marks on bones and remnants of fire pits suggest the animals were butchered and cooked here. The fossils have been left lying where they were found, and research continues.

Wildfires in 2012 destroyed trees and valuable pasture, but for researchers there was one benefit. The hill overlooking the spring had been scoured by researchers for more than 40 years, said Dennis Kuhnel, director of Hudson-Meng. “After the fires, we found more than 80 artifacts just lying on the ground,” he said.

After a day spent working in the bonebed, student Kate Kourbatova, who lives in a tent here, prepared her evening meal. The kitchen, also in a tent, was fully equipped. We found Hudson-Meng’s oddest collection in the refrigerator. The freshly removed skin of a prairie rattlesnake was coiled next to the butter. One of the students almost stepped on it, Kourbatova said of the unfortunate reptile. “It’s going to be a hatband, and we ate the meat,” she said.

“That’s fossil camp for you,” Kuhnel said, “here at Nebraska’s oldest barbecue restaurant.”

BACK AT THE KESSELRINGS’ High Plains Homestead, the smell of grilled bison burgers greeted us. The hooting of hungry fossil hunters grew louder as sunlight waned. “It can get pretty crazy here when the kids come home,” said Linda Kesselring of these longtime customers. Milton Arner was greeted like a celebrity when he arrived. “You guys are great, but it’s Mike’s burgers that I’m here for,” Arner joked. The remainder of the evening was seasoned with jokes, songs and exaggerated tales of past adventures.

In preparation for the next day’s hunt, the fossilers retired – all but Garcia, who was working in his room, and the blonde with the Bowie knife, Westberry, who was stargazing from a canyon edge. There were so many stars, she had trouble picking out constellations. “I’ve never experienced such beauty anywhere else,” Westberry said. “Everyone is friendly here. Best of all, the Kesselrings treat me like family.”

The next morning, Garcia headed to Arner Ranch. He pointed out a small house where he stores supplies. Before the Kesselrings built their High Plains Homestead, Garcia and crew used to stay here. There was no running water and no electricity. Arner was born in there, Garcia marveled. “Can you imagine his parents raising 10 children in this tiny place?”

Dodging cactus spines, Garcia, with a handful of wildflowers yanked from the roadside, scaled a butte overlooking his happy fossil-hunting grounds. The previous night he had combined two of the fossilers’ most important tools, plaster of Paris and a Bowie knife, to make a memorial to a fallen client and friend. He pulled it from his backpack and placed it next to memorials from years past as meadowlarks eulogized. He has spread the cremated remains of several friends in this ancient graveyard, where the High Plains breeze blends them with volcanic ashes to ashes and Oligocene dust to dust.

“This beautiful place has touched so many people,” said an emotional Garcia. “My ashes will come here after I die. I’ve had the best times in my life here.”

A curious pronghorn buck watched as we climbed down. It reminded Garcia of a fossilized pronghorn he found in a phosphate mine. Being the first of its kind ever found it was named for him, Subantilocapra garciae.

The fossil hunter hopped over a 3-foot-deep ravine. “That wasn’t here last year,” Garcia said. “New Badlands being born.”

While leaping over a dry creek, something caught Garcia’s eye in midflight. He crawled down into the narrow channel, pulled his knife and began scraping dirt away from what looked like a small stone. Soon, an eye socket and two rows of teeth stared back at Garcia. In just a few minutes the complete skull of an oreodont emerged into the light of day for the first time in millions of years.

“It’s easy to just want to yank that beautiful thing right out of the ground,” Garcia said. “I learned a long time ago that there’s almost nothing more heartbreaking than watching something so precious and ancient fall apart in your hands. A little extra work and patience goes a long way.”

Additional digging revealed no skeleton or other bones, so Garcia went to work exhuming his latest in a long list of Badlands finds. After digging a channel around the skull, he covered it tightly with aluminum foil. He then reached into his backpack for a plaster cast, opened the package and added some water.

The plaster would help keep the fragile skull from moving, but it didn’t guarantee it wouldn’t crumble as it was lifted from the earth. After allowing the plaster to dry, Garcia was ready.

“This is the worst part,” he said. “It’s nerve-wracking. Will it be coming home with me, or will it turn to dust right here where it died?”

Garcia wondered this aloud as he pried the reluctant fossil from the ground. His jubilant “woo-hoo” echoing through the Badlands revealed the answer, and the victory was enough to set Garcia proudly parading around the buttes with his palm-sized treasure held triumphantly toward the sky.

Original story appeared in the Nebraska Life Magazine May/June 2014 issue.