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North Dakota Geological Survey paleontologists Clint Boyd, center, and Jeff Person, right, lead a fossil dig near Medora on July 12, 2017, with biology students from Century High School and Legacy High School. The popular program is expanding in 2019. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

Popular North Dakota fossil dig program expands

BISMARCK -- The North Dakota Geological Survey is continuing to expand its popular fossil dig program, which attracted people from 31 states last year.

State paleontologists plan to spend 46 days in the field next year, providing people with a chance to discover fossils that are millions of years old.

“We’ve really seen a skyrocketing demand,” said senior paleontologist Clint Boyd.” We’ve been trying to step up and meet that as much as possible.”

The program more than doubled in size in 2018, with the Geological Survey bringing volunteers to four dig sites in North Dakota. The program offered 635 public dig spots over 40 days. It attracted 326 people who spent an average of two days in the field.

Even with the expanded number of opportunities, 95 percent of the spots were filled on the first day of registration.

National media coverage helped drive interest in the program, with 55 percent of fossil dig participants coming from out of state this year while 45 percent came from North Dakota.

“We like to keep that balance,” Boyd said. “We want to bring people in, but we want to give opportunities to the people of North Dakota as well.”

A survey of the out-of-state visitors showed that 87 percent of them came to North Dakota specifically because of the fossil dig and 39 percent stayed to visit other attractions in the state.

As the public fossil digs have expanded, they have become a major source of new fossils coming into the state fossil collection, Boyd said.

For example, Legacy High School student Simone IronBoulder found a crocodile tooth during a field trip with the Geological Survey near Medora, N.D., in 2017. At about 1.5 inches long, it is the largest crocodile tooth found at that site, Boyd said.

At a public fossil dig south of Bismarck, participants have found large Tyrannosaurus rex teeth that set records for the Geological Survey and have been displayed at the North Dakota Heritage Center.

“What’s happening on these digs is not just a tourism opportunity for people, but these people are helping us make real significant discoveries about the history of North Dakota at the same time,” Boyd said.

With the expansion of the fossil digs, North Dakota now has one of the top programs in the country to offer opportunities to the public, Boyd said.

“They’ve really done a fantastic job,” said Ed Murphy, state geologist. “What started off as a very sleepy program, now we’ve got interest from throughout the nation for people to attend this.”

The Geological Survey also has launched a new donor program called NDGS Paleo Pals to help pay for program expansions.

Donors may be eligible to gain priority registration for public digs or other benefits, such as a behind-the-scenes tour of the state paleontology lab. For more information about Paleo Pals, visit https://www.dmr.nd.gov/ndfossil/dig_supporter.

The 2019 public digs will be near Bismarck, Medora, Dickinson and Pembina. Registration opens Feb. 2. To be added to the 2019 fossil dig notification list, contact Mindy Austin at 701-328-8015.

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