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October 25, 2014

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Giants in our backyard: Ancient creatures once roamed Las Vegas, and now there’s a quest to save what remains

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Sam Morris

UNLV geology professor Steve Rowland surveys acres of badlands at Tule Springs.

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Dawn Reynoso, a graduate assistant in UNLV’s Department of Geosciences, examines a marine fossil from the side of a trench.

Did early humans mingle with the beasts that lived in the valley during the ice age?

Scientists tried for years to find out.

For a long time, there was no hint of interaction.

“We’ve never found a spear tip sticking in the rib of a mammal or anything like that,” UNLV professor Steve Rowland said.

In the 1950s, using radiocarbon dating, scientists excavated Tule Springs and found several large deposits of charcoal mixed with mammal flesh. The remains were from cooking fires. They pointed to a human presence but were not definitive.

Scientists returned to Tule Springs in October 1962 for a four-month excavation — one of the largest in history: Bulldozers and ground scrapers dug trenches up to 35 feet deep, and one that stretched the length of 10 football fields.

They found the remains of a giant ground sloth, North American lion, pronghorn, rabbits, rodents, coyotes, an owl, waterfowl and a giant teratorn, a prehistoric bird with a 23-foot-wide wingspan.

But the expedition was disappointing. Scientists concluded there was no way early humans could have coexisted with the valley’s Pleistocene mammals.

“There is not evidence for the presence of man earlier than 13,000 years ago,” Project Director Richard Shutler said.

Twenty miles north of the Strip, in a 35-foot-deep trench, Steve Rowland spots an object protruding from the desert floor. The 61-year-old paleontologist kneels to pluck up his discovery: a bone that looks like a small tree branch stripped of twigs and bark.

“It’s a rib,” says Rowland, who has collected and studied fossils since the 1980s. “It’s cow.”

Rowland is standing on a 22,000-acre patch of federally owned land known as Tule Springs, where paleontologists have discovered the bones and teeth of animals that roamed as many as 250,000 years ago. That’s when Southern Nevada was home to the 12-foot-tall giant ground sloth; the American lion, a quarter larger than its African counterpart; camelops, larger ancestors of modern camels; and the 14-foot-tall Columbian mammoth, an herbivore that feasted on 500 pounds of vegetation daily.

The cast of characters sounds absurd, until you consider what the valley looked like back then. It was lush, with springs, wet meadows and marshes. Cattails lined the banks of babbling brooks and towering juniper bushes dotted sagebrush woodlands.

Rowland runs a finger along the bone.

“It’s modern,” he says, dropping his find.

Turns out, someone tossed a dead cow in the trench years ago. Paleontologists often find modern bones strewn among the ancient ones — along with beer bottles, paper and other trash.

For the past decade, local residents, politicians and scientists have been pushing the federal government to designate the area a national monument. Congress is kicking around a bill that would make that vision a reality, but so far efforts have failed.

HIDDEN TREASURE

Nestled in the Upper Las Vegas Wash, Tule Springs offers a glimpse into what the Mojave Desert looked like during the ice age. The bones and teeth of hundreds of species of mammal, rodent, amphibian and bird are fossilized in the strata. Most remain well preserved.

The site also provides archeological clues that could help scientists make sense of climate change and its effects on the Las Vegas landscape.

If made a national monument, the fossil-rich area could become a community asset similar to the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles or Diamond Valley Lake, known as the “Valley of the Mastodons,” outside Hemet, Calif. Both sites are rich with prehistoric discoveries and today feature visitor centers and museums where members of the public can learn about finds.

The tar pits date back about 40,000 years; Diamond Valley Lake, about 60,000 years. The fossil bed at Tule Springs dates from the end of the Pleistocene Epoch 12,000 years ago all the way back to 250,000 years ago. The bones here tell a story not found in many places.

“It helps people understand that Las Vegas has an interesting history that predates Bugsy Siegel and the Strip and all that stuff,” Rowland said. “We go back a long, long way. So many Las Vegans were not born here. I think it’s great for them to have a place where they can understand that there’s a deep, interesting history that’s worth knowing about.”

NEW LIFE

Take a walk through Tule Springs and two sights immediately are noticeable: the housing developments that butt up against the desert, and the broken bottles, beer cans and motorcycle ramps that litter the land.

“It’s deplorable what people have left behind — shell casings by the tens of thousands,” said Alan O’Neill, the National Park Service superintendent of Lake Mead. “That’s the community’s relationship to the landscape.”

For years, people have trashed Tule Springs, oblivious to its treasure. They dump garbage, smash bottles and roll over ancient bones in all-terrain vehicles. Developers built houses over massive animal graveyards, trapping history under asphalt roads and concrete foundations. The site sits a half-mile from Aliante Casino.

Fossils were discovered, in part, when NV Energy began building a power corridor at the edge of Tule Springs in the early 2000s. Crews found ancient remains while digging. The BLM in 2003 placed Tule Springs under “disposal consideration,” meaning the agency could sell the land for development and private use.

Residents fumed and tried to find ways to protect the land. A local retired teacher named Jill DeStefano created the nonprofit group Protectors of Tule Springs. Meeting with local politicians and canvassing neighborhoods for supporters, the Protectors secured 10,000 signatures on a petition against the BLM’s land sale. They convinced the National Park Service the area was worth protecting. Local leaders latched onto the idea of having a national park in their own backyard.

Tule Springs is rare in that it remains accessible. It is the largest open ice age fossil site in the Mojave Desert and southern Great Basin.

“The whole Las Vegas Valley is situated on sediments of the Las Vegas Formation, the geological unit that yields these ice age remains,” said Eric Scott, curator of the San Bernardino County Museum. “But ...any fossils remaining lie inaccessible beneath homes, pools and casinos. In contrast, the upper Las Vegas Wash is still open, still exposed to wind and weather, and the fossils preserved there are still eroding out, awaiting discovery. This is the only place in the Las Vegas Valley where this is still true.”

VISIONS OF THE FUTURE

Legislation to designate Tule Springs a national monument has stalled in Washington, D.C., another victim of infighting and party polarization. The bid faces an uncertain future, despite being supported by the entire Nevada delegation, who argue that it can be a boon for students, scientists and the economy in general, as it would offer a new tourist hotspot.

The Clark County Commission, Las Vegas City Council, North Las Vegas City Council and Tribal Council of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe all passed resolutions asking Congress to make Tule Springs part of the National Park System.

“It would be a model urban national park,” O’Neill said. “There’s no place that has a 200,000-year continuum of time. You can build a curriculum around this place as a living laboratory. You can be unearthing, and the students can be a part of the excavation process.”

The national park could include a visitor center and feature iPad-navigated tours.

Josh Bonde grew up imagining a career digging up dinosaur bones. Shortly after graduating with a degree in paleontology, he got the chance. Under the scorching summer sun of Esmeralda County, he helped unearth a 12 million-year-old, four-tusk elephant skull. At Tule Springs, he discovered the region’s first dire wolf tooth.

“We could potentially bus students out to the monument and have them back by the next class period,” Bonde said. “There’s potential for biology classes and environmental classes. I think from an educational perspective, this could be a fantastic resource.”

“When you get out in it, and when you see all these little fossil remains, you can just imagine what’s underneath there,” O’Neill said. “This has been building over 200,000 years. There’s stuff down there that’s probably pretty darn significant.”

Reporter Amber Phillips contributed to this report.

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