NAME: ReBecca Hunt-Foster
CURRENT TITLE: Canyon Country District Paleontologist, Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
Mesozoic Vertebrate Paleontology
AREA OF EXPERTISE: My current research includes a study of Early Cretaceous ornithomimosaurs from North America, along with an additional research project on the paleofauna of the Upper Cretaceous Williams Fork Formation of western Colorado and eastern Utah.
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: I have worked for the BLM since January 2013, and have lived on the Colorado Plateau as a working paleontologist since 2007.
EDUCATION: I graduated with my Master’s Degree in Geology from Texas Tech University in 2005, and my Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Arkansas in 2003.
What’s your job like?
I am currently the only district paleontologist in the BLM. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has had a paleontologist on staff since 2000, and the new Prehistoric Trackways National Monument also has a paleontologist. The BLM also currently employs four regional paleontologists and one national program lead. That is only eight paleontologist vs. the ~200 archaeologists employed by the BLM. For contrast, the National Park Service employs ~21 professional paleontologists and at least seven parks and monuments and also has a national program lead. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service currently employees three professional paleontologists. With the signing of the Paleontology Resources Preservation Act in 2009, requiring that the agency manage paleontological resources using scientific principles and expertise, we hope the bureau will hire more state and district paleontologists in the future.
I give advice on paleontological fieldwork taking place in my area and assist researchers and consultants in obtaining the appropriate permits they need to do work in my district. I have been developing a paleontology education program that includes public outreach, to help our community and visitors gain a better appreciation for our paleontological resources, while also helping to educate about the need for protection of these fossils. I work with my other natural resource specialists through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process and develop stipulations for actions needed to protect fossils. I maintain databases and work in the geographic information system (GIS) for various projects that I give input on. For instance, if a new hiking trail or oil pad were to be constructed, I would give advice about what the potential would be for finding fossils in that area. If the potential is high or likely I would suggest a surface survey or monitoring for the area before, and sometimes during, construction. Fossils are often found before the work occurs, and these can be safely removed or the project can be moved around them so they are not damaged. When the potential to find fossils is very high, a paleontologist is on site while the work is taking place, to help safely remove any fossils discovered before any damage or additional damage is done.
What’s a typical day like?
No two days are alike. On office days I will come in, check my email and voicemail, and start working down my list of things that need to get done that week. One day I might be working with a paleontologist to help them in obtaining an excavation permit, and the next day I could be in a classroom speaking with children or giving a public lecture to interested members of our community. I also get to work with other members of our BLM team to assist with their projects – everything from recreation and wildlife to mineral extraction and rangeland issues. We have actually had cows find dinosaur tracks! On fieldwork days, we often leave the office early and head to our site where we might be cleaning off a dinosaur track site, excavating a dinosaur, or hiking around in the desert looking for fossils. It is a great area to work because we have so many fossils!
Traveling and field work are the funniest parts of my work. As a paleontologist, I love the opportunity to travel to new places, meet new people and see new things. On a more local level, my favorite part of my job is fieldwork. Southeastern Utah is a wonderful area to work in with such a variety of terrain and fossils to see. The number and diversity of fossil material to find, work with, and educate people about are hard to beat. It is fun to tell a family visiting the area about fossils they are seeing for the first time, why they are important, what we have learned from them and seeing their faces light up as they get it too. I also really enjoy working with students and have spent the past year developing a new Girl Scout Paleontology field-based patch for our area, which I am very excited to start doing camps for in 2018. I am lucky to live and work in such a rich area.
It is challenging to work with people. Fossils are much easier. I work with both the public and with fellow researchers. When it comes to working with researchers, I find it challenging to keep everyone working together well, following the proper rules and regulations and keeping everything consistent for all the various players in the field. When it comes to dealing with the public it is hard to tell a really enthusiastic person that the specimen they have brought me/emailed me a picture of to identify is actually just a rock. I hate to disappoint people. Visiting or identifying their finds with them is always exciting and fun, and even if it turns out to not be a fossil, we enjoy getting to talk about our shared love for paleontology, and they often do find fossils later on!
What’s your advice to students?
A great geologist once told me that geology is not learned through the seat of your pants, but the soles of your shoes and the same is true of paleontology. It is about the experiences you have, not just the things you learn in school.