Utah (ABC4) – Have you ever been out exploring Utah and discovered a fossil? 

If you do happen to find a fossil on Utah land, you cannot always keep it for your personal collection. According to the Utah Geological Survey, UGS, there are many factors that go into allowing you to keep or report and return a found fossil.

Certain types of found fossils need to be kept and recorded for scientific research. 

Fossils are remains, traces, or imprints of past plant and animal life and can be widely found throughout Utah. 

James Kirkland, Ph.D., State Paleontologist for the Utah Geological Survey tells ABC4 it is common for people to find rare and not so rare fossils on Utah land. 

Kirkland says the Utah Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management, BLM, have a contract to process and create geological maps “Potential Fossil Yield Classification Maps,” Kirkland shares. He says they are maps “based on how abundant fossils tend to be.” 

The maps are often used statewide when deciding where to build structures, to see if the areas should be looked at for fossils before starting construction. 

Kirkland says these maps are “great indicators” to help advise where fossils can be found and to make sure the state continues to be careful in preserving our paleontological land. 

“You can never say there is nothing there because you didn’t find anything–the wind could blow and you could find something,” Kirkland says of the state’s rich land. 

Depending on land ownership, some fossils can be collected for personal non-commercial use, the Utah Geological Survey states on their website.

Officials say vertebrate fossils can not be collected on any federal or state lands throughout Utah. 

A vertebrate fossil is a type of fossil that is “from animals that have a backbone. The fossils include bones, teeth, skin impressions, footprints, tail drags, and other traces of activity. Vertebrates found in Utah include dinosaurs, fish, turtles, and mammals such as mammoths and musk oxen,” as stated by the Utah Geological Survey. 

Utah land where fossils can be found all have a status.

Federal lands are managed by a federal government agency: the Bureau of Land Management, BLM, U.S. Forest Service, USFS, National Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Department of Defense, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or Bureau of Indian Affairs. Of these agencies, only the BLM and USFS allow some fossil collecting. State lands are mostly managed by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (Trust Lands). And private lands are held by private owners (including local governments and Indian tribes), according to the UGS. 

“If you re picking stuff up, you should know whose stuff you are picking up,” Kirkland shares. 

If you are out and find a fossil the survey lists the following steps to take when you are determining what to do with the found fossil.  

  • Determine ownership of the land you intend to visit. Consult surface-management-status maps (sold by various agencies and outlets including the UGS and BLM).
  • Become familiar with the regulations that apply to collecting on the various lands. Refer to the UGS flier Publication Information Series 23, Rules and Regulations Regarding Rock, Mineral, and Fossil Collecting in Utah.
  • Contact the appropriate land manager/owner to inquire about any specific regulations.

Kirkland tells ABC4 “it’s almost impossible” for the public to know what is rare and what is is not. 

He says if you find any type of fossil you question, especially bones, to contact the UGS and tell them what you found. 

Kirkland advises always making an inquiry. He says sometimes it is nothing but other times people find really important things. 

He says he feels Utahns and those visiting Utah land are really good about reporting their fossil finds, he says they even receive credit for what they find. 

Are you an avid fossil collector? Utah has some general fossil collecting rules you should know about, especially for vertebrate fossils. According to officials with the Utah Geological Survey, vertebrate fossils cannot be collected on any federal or state lands unless you have a permit issued to accredited institutions.

Invertebrate and plant fossils can be collected, in reasonable amounts, if the collection is for personal, non-commercial purposes on BLM, USFS, and state-administered Trust Lands but must follow certain conditions. 

The following are collecting conditions listed by the Utah Geological Survey

  • Some BLM lands may be closed to collecting for various reasons. Inquire at the appropriate local BLM office.
  • Collecting permits are required on USFS lands and may vary per district. Contact the applicable USFS district.
  • Collecting on state-administered Trust Lands requires a permit and payment of an annual fee. Permits may be obtained at Trust Lands offices.
  • Permission is required to collect on private lands. Always check with the landowner before removing any fossils.
  • Private landowners have the right to keep any fossils found on their property. They are urged to report any fossil finds to the UGS (see below).

The Utah Geological Survey says many fossils end up in private collections, depriving the public and scientists of research opportunities, education, and display.

“Sadly, things are carried away quite commonly,” Kirkland adds. 

No matter where you find a fossil or what the fossil is, the UGS strongly encourages you to report your find to the State Paleontologist or other paleontology staff at the UGS (801-537-3300).

Learn more about the Utah Geological Survey.