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Interview with Dinosaur Hunter Dr. Steve Nicklas

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Dr. Steve Nicklas is a dinosaur paleontologist and professional fossil hunter. He has a PhD in Field Archaeology and Archaeology of the Roman Provinces from the University of London. In 1996, Dr. Nicklas founded Paleo Prospectors, a company which enables average families to participate in field surveys and fossil digs for dinosaurs and other prehistoric life. To date, they've had over 800 participants and have discovered 100 or more museum-quality fossils. Currently, he is also Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology at Gainesville State College.

Where are you now?

We are in Buffalo, South Dakota and we're on a ranch that's located about 10-15 miles west of town.

What's the lay of the land? Is this Badlands?

In the areas of high erosion it's very much like the badlands, but because it's a cattle-ranch there's a lot of pasture land in between.

How's the weather?

It's been brilliant. It hasn't been in the 90's yet. It's wonderful.

Though you're digging dinosaurs these days, I see you're an Archaeologist by training. Do you still do some of that? How did you make the transition to collecting fossils?

Well what happened is that in my early childhood I was interested in fossils first. I've always been interested in fossils. I worked in contract archaeology for many years and then once I finished my PhD dissertation, I didn't particularly want to go into teaching at the time because of the politically correct nature of teaching in the world today. I thought I'd probably be fired in a month.

So I started a company actually when I was in graduate school doing archaeological reproductions, called PFR Reproductions. We actually produced the largest number of archaeologists available. We had over 700 different archaeological reproductions, all cast from the original artifacts. We were pretty successful until the Olympics came to town in Atlanta. They placed a massive order with us and after we filled it they told us they had run out of money and couldn't pay us. As a result of that, we couldn't recover and the IRS shut us down because we couldn't pay our withholding. It was a pretty terrible experience.

At the same time I was going through that, I had a good friend right across the hall at the merchandise mart...was Gene Harris who took me under his wing. I loved fossils and I spent more time in his showroom than in my showroom. The writing was on the wall for a long time. Once the Olympic committee refused to pay us—and we couldn't sue them because they were a quasi-governmental agency—and another governmental agency decided to arrest us for not paying our taxes, I became very...well I was really pissed. Because on the one hand the government is saying, "no you can't go after these people even though they owe you this money," and another branch of government was saying, "yeah, well you better pay us this money because you owe it to us." But, I guess it was about a year and a half before they finally shut us down. And during that year and a half, whenever we'd make a delivery, I'd take the truck. We'd rent U-Haul trucks and so these were like 15 or 24 footers, and it was my bloody company so I could drive the truck if I wanted to. I would stop at public access fossil sites on the way back and get as much marketable material as possible. So basically by the time my reproduction business went under I had enough fossils I could start selling fossils. I made that transition very easily.

I've recently gotten back in to archaeology because I'm teaching now. It was recommended by a friend that I apply for a job at Gainesville State College and I did and I got it.

Tell me about the trips. What sort of fossils do you find when you guide these tours. What sort of people sign up for this and what sort of things do they find?

Everybody. Well there are several different classes of people. People that are in education. Families. And individuals—typically males—that are obsessed with fossils. That makes up 90% of the people who come.

A lot of Jurassic Park enthusiasts?

Yes, but my bread and butter are people who are addicted to it because they come every year.

So you have a lot of regulars?

Eighty-five percent. Every year.

Well, that speaks well to the quality of trip you're leading if people keep coming back.

The only people who don't come back are the people who shouldn't have come in the first place. One lady showed up in high heels. One guy showed up in Bermuda shorts and snow boots. People who collect fossils tend to be a little eccentric, but we've had some real doozies.

The vast majority of people have been wonderful. It's the best thing I ever did. I've ended up with a hundred really good friends, and it's nice.

Do you sometimes get kids coming along as well?

Yeah, we always have lots of kids. I mean, I think we have eight kids this week.

Doing this over ten years now, do some of those kids follow their passion for fossils into a career?

Yeah, we had one I wrote a letter of recommendation to undergraduate school in paleontology.

I saw somewhere you get teased with the nickname "Indiana Jones." How did that come about?

There was a client who came out here. One of the ones that probably shouldn't have come out. He came out with his son and he offered to help us promote the trips. As it turned out, this whole thing was a scam on his part, but part of it was that he came up with that. We were able to extract ourselves from that situation, thank heavens.

But you got left with the nickname?


Tell me about some of the more exciting things you've found. I know people get to keep some of the things that they find up to a certain value, but you've found some world-class skeletons, and dinosaur skin?

Yeah, actually we've found quite a bit. A Cretaceous shark last year with skin. A forty-five foot long tylosaur with skin, and a twenty-four foot long probably new species of hadrosaur with skin because it has too many vertebrae to be an edmontosaurus. A tail of a hadrosaur about 80% covered with skin.

Does any of this stuff end up in museums?

We're trying as hard as we can. We have a group of investors who will probably be donating at least one of those specimens. The hadrosaur has not been prepared yet. The shark has not been prepared yet. The tail has been, because that was found years ago. We're trying to get a group of investors, because there's certain people like the landowner and some other folks who need to be paid something, and if we can negotiate that with the investors, then it will be donated.

Over a hundred years ago, the collections of many premier natural history museums were filled with finds from commercial collectors. In the wake of recent events from the last decade and culminating with the Sue fiasco, there's tension between commercial collectors and academia. As both a commercial collector and as an academic, what kinds of mistakes have been made by commercial collectors? And on the other side, what mistakes have the professional community made regarding this whole discussion?

It's a very big problem both in issues of commercial abuse and also, in my opinion, from academic abuse. Commercial abuse is obvious: they'll come in and bulldoze sites and information is lost and that sort of thing. It's not as extreme as it is, for example, in archaeology where the spacial relationship of the artifacts is the most important thing. That's much less the case of paleontology. Only in a situation where you have substantial articulation is that even an issue. In most cases, what is happening is that specimens are lost—at least temporarily—to science.

You know, in reality, any spectacular specimen eventually ends up in a museum, because the people who own it die, and that's what happens to the vast majority. And I think that the abuses of commercial fossil collecting are far outweighed by the fact that a fossil that's collected by a commercial collector may end up in a private collection, may end up in a museum, but if that fossil is allowed to sit on the ground, guess what? It doesn't end up anywhere and it's destroyed. The whole argument that they're saving the fossils is bogus. It's all about control and power and greed—on both sides, actually. On both sides, actually.

But, I mean, I've worked in museums most of my adult life, and they can't tell me what happens in museums, because I know what happens in museums. I've worked in them. To arrest a Boy Scout leader for picking up a fossil that a paleontologist would throw away is criminal. And it happens every day. That was one of the main reasons I started this was that whole argument. My goal is to take as many people out there as possible, of means—doctors, and lawyers, and people that their congressmen will listen to if they write a letter—and show them the reality of the situation that millions and millions and millions, and millions of fossils are destroyed every year by stupid government regulations. And please quote me.

One thing I've seen is that because researchers—especially universities—are so focussed on research, and grant money is driven by research and new finds, it seems like they sometimes lose site of the value of education.

Absolutely. That's in academia in general. That's why I like smaller schools because that doesn't exist; it's all about the kids. The first thing I tell them when they come into my class is if you expect me to be politically correct, drop this class right now. And I've never gotten any flak, and I tell it exactly as I see it. And they don't have to agree with me, but I'm not going to say what certain individuals would want me to say, if I don't agree with it.

If somebody's following the conversation up to this point, they might think you don't have friends in academia, but I know that's not the case. What are some of the opportunities you've had to work with paleontologists?

The one individual we've done the most with is Kirk Johnson from Denver Museum of Natural History. We've arranged for him to get access to one of our ranches where there's—according to Kirk—one of the best, if not the best, Cretaceous leaf sites in the world. One hundred and ten new species of plants have come out of there. And if we had not contacted him and if we had not arranged with the landowner to let him on, it wouldn't have happened.

We also have arranged many donations of museum-quality specimens to museums. The Elachee Nature Science Center has received two mosasaurs, and a substantial number of other fossils. The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia a cast of a triceratops skull and some fossil triceratops material. The Denver Museum of Natural History has received probably four to five hundred pounds of plant fossils. The Geological Survey in West Virginia received a 3/4 hadrosaur wall mounted.

You've mentioned plants a couple of times here. People think you're out digging dinosaur bones, but you're also finding other things as well. And do you dig mammals as well?

Yes, we do some Oligocene collecting, and also some Pleistocene stuff.

What sort of Ice Age animals have you found?

Well, we're working right now on a mammoth up in Michigan that's in a sink hole. It's been very difficult to extract. The landowner went to the state and they said they weren't interested. So, he asked us and we said sure we'd help him. You see, and that's the type of thing that they'll say they're not interested and then when it's out of the ground they'll say they're interested. Because all of the work's done.

You can sign up to dig with Dr. Nicklas during the 2008 field season through the Prehistoric Planet Store.

We'll follow up with Dr. Nicklas soon as the field season wraps up to learn what discoveries his groups made this summer.

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