Exploring the BLM’s policy on the public release of paleontology locality data

Story by Greg Liggett, Paleontologist, Montana/Dakotas State Office. Photos by Scott Foss, Division Chief, Division of Education, Cultural & Paleontological Resources; and courtesy of Randolph Moses.

A mounted skeleton of Allosaurus is standing in sand surrounded by green vegetation.
A mounted skeleton of Allosaurus at the Cleveland-Lloyd Interpretive Center at Jurassic
National Monument in Utah. (Photo by BLM)

A final Department of the Interior regulation was published at 43 CFR Part 49 – Paleontological Resources Preservation in order to implement the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009 (PRPA).

PRPA mandates that specific locality data will not be publicly released. Why? Like cultural heritage professionals, paleontologists wish to protect fossil resources from potential damage or theft, so the exact locality data is not publicly available. But what if slightly generalized locality data is shared? Upon the publication of the regulations at 43 CFR 49 related to PRPA, BLM issued PIM2022-009. Among other things, that IM set out the policy for how paleontology locality data actually can be shared with the public.

There are many good reasons to make the data available. For example, a student researcher might want to map out the locations in time and space for a particular group of prehistoric organisms as a GIS project. Or the public might be curious to know, for example, where tyrannosaur fossils come from.

A map with red dots illustrates the occurrence of tyrannosaur fossils in Montana/Dakotas without revealing exact locations.
Where are tyrannosaurs found? This map illustrates the occurrence of tyrannosaur fossils in Montana/Dakotas without revealing exact locations.

Of course, in some cases the BLM wants everyone to know exactly where the locality is because we offer interpretation. The newly established Jurassic National Monument in Utah is a good example.

The new guidelines allow for the public disclosure of locality data that has the latitude and longitude truncated to the first decimal place when expressed in decimal-degrees. After coordinating with professional colleagues and major museums, including the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, BLM specialists determined that, in general, this will specify a locality to within about six miles of its actual location, or approximately to the precision of a regular township.

A person holds tyrannosaur fossil teeth in their hand.
A typical tyrannosaur find, like this one from Montana, does not include the skull or skeleton, but teeth shed from the mouth while eating. (Photo courtesy of Randolph Moses)

This level of precision is close enough to allow large scale reviews of geographic occurrences while also safeguarding the resources from potential harm. Visit the BLM’s recently updated Paleontology Resources Webpage for additional information.