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WDAY: The News Leader

Published July 08, 2012, 04:09 PM

National Park in western ND a hotbed for fossils

MEDORA, N.D. (AP) — The ever-changing landscape of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora is a treasure to sightseers, but there also are many treasures waiting to be found.

By: APRIL BAUMGARTEN,The Dickinson Press, WDAY

MEDORA, N.D. (AP) — The ever-changing landscape of Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora is a treasure to sightseers, but there also are many treasures waiting to be found.

"The possibilities are absolutely enormous," Medora resident Sheila Schafer said. "Underneath this ground there is just one miracle after another."

North Dakota Geological Survey crews found a fossil hotspot in 2004 about three miles east of Medora. The site is on Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation property, prompting the Geological Survey to partner with the organization for public digs in 2005.

Fossils about 60 million years old have been found there, North Dakota paleontologist John Hoganson said.

Remains from a crocodile-like species — champsosaurus gigas — ancient turtles, fish and mammal bones have been excavated, making the site significant to the scientific community, he said.

When thinking of the national park and the area, people usually think about the Marquis de Mores, who founded Medora in 1883, foundation Marketing Assistant Dylan Edwards said. They also think of Theodore Roosevelt, who spent time in the Badlands, and started the Maltese Cross Ranch and the Elkhorn Ranch near town. People usually don't think about fossils, he added.

There are a lot of artifacts to find, and Edwards said dig participants will find something.

"I was out there for an hour or so and I think I dug up a fish vertebra," he said. "It's a great opportunity for parents to come and do an activity with their kids, but it is also an educational thing and it gets the kids working with their hands."

Schafer was among the first to participate in an organized fossil dig. Her daughter, Maureen Limond of Austin, Texas, joined her and found a champsosaurus gigas tooth.

"The exciting thing is it is just a few miles from the front door of my house where I have lived in Medora for 48 years," Schafer said. "If you have a chance, go on that dig even if it is for the first half of the dig."

The fossils are taken to the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck and some are on display, Hoganson said.

"Some of these fossils people have found over the years, they will be able to come in and say, 'Hey, I found that,'" he said.

The fossil dig is July 23-29 and costs $145 per person per day. It is open to anyone 12 years old or older.

Family days are open to children 6 years or younger if they are with an adult, July 27-29. Participants can dig in the morning or afternoon for $30 per session.

Space is limited. Contact the foundation at 701-623-4444 for more information.

Visitors also can view fossils in Theodore Roosevelt National Park year-round without getting their hands dirty.

The skeleton of the champsosaurus is on display in the South Unit Visitor Center, Park Superintendent Valorie Naylor said.

She said the Petrified Forest is the No. 1 thing that people come to see in the park. The park consists of three units.

The forest is in the northwest part of the park's South Unit, South Unit District Interpreter Linda Morton said. Explorers drive for 30 minutes through the park and then hike three miles round-trip to see the fossilized tree trunks, which are at least 55 million years old.

"It's neat to walk through an ancient forest and imagine what it is like," she said.

Naylor said visitors should leave anything they find in the park where they find it for preservation.

New this year are guided tours to the forest on Saturdays throughout the summer. Check the park's website for times and meeting locations.

Morton said the park is a place to get away from it all and relax from "a life that can be quite hectic."

The park is open year-round and welcomes about 600,000 visitors each year.

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