Wichitan one of two honored for work to protect fossils

BOZEMAN, Mont. —A Montana State University paleontologist and a Wichita businessman, who worked for nearly two decades on legislation to protect dinosaur fossils on federal land, have received an international award for their work.

Pat Leiggi, administrative director of paleontology and director of exhibits at MSU's Museum of the Rockies, and Ted J. Vlamis of Wichita are sharing the Gregory Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Vlamis, a vice president at Wichita's Pioneer Balloon, has had a lifelong interest in paleontology.

"Basically the legislation makes it easier for federal agencies to protect our fossil sites and makes for fines that hopefully will deter potential thieves," said Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies and a longtime colleague of Leiggi.

Leiggi and Vlamis spearheaded the effort that resulted in the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, which was signed by President Obama in 2009.

The act protects vertebrate fossils on public land as scientific resources, rather than government property. The penalty for stealing government property was far less than the penalty for stealing scientific resources.

Leiggi's work on the legislation began in 1991, when a Swiss team of commercial fossil collectors wandered onto federal land and discovered an Allosaurus dubbed "Big Al" near Shell, Wyo.

"Big Al" was excavated by a team from the Museum of the Rockies and the University of Wyoming Geological Museum. The dinosaur is now displayed at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman and casts are displayed at other museums around the country.

The find raised questions about why there wasn't stronger legislation to ensure such a fossil would remain in the public domain. Leiggi was also concerned about private collectors selling fossils to other private collectors.

Vlamis, an expert in the legislative process, and Leiggi thought it would take two or three years to pass the fossil legislation. Leiggi said changes in administration, staff turnover and the struggle to educate people about the issue caused the effort to drag on for 17 years.

"It's not national health care or the economy or a lot of things that are on people's minds," Leiggi said. "You've got to get it on their radar and get them interested."

Now that the legislation has passed, Leiggi and Vlamis are working with the U.S. Department of the Interior on how the law will be enforced. He expects the work to be completed by next spring.

The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has more than 2,300 members around the world, including paleontologists, students, artists and others interested in vertebrate paleontology.