Red Rock Canyon draws more than 1 million visitors a year, making it the busiest National Conservation Area in the country.
Apparently it was big with the dinosaurs, too.
Since the first such discovery made news in 2011, the fossilized footprints of long-extinct creatures have been found at more than 10 different spots in the 196,000-acre conservation area. At five of those sites, dinosaur tracks can be seen in rust-colored sandstone 25 miles from the Las Vegas Strip.
Researchers and Red Rock staff are trying to keep the sites secret, at least until they can be cataloged and studied. But word may be leaking out, much to the dismay of those seeking to preserve the prehistoric prints.
UNLV geologist and paleontologist Josh Bonde isn’t directly involved in studying the footprints at Red Rock, but he knows how fragile they can be.
“Even well-intentioned folks going out to take a look can harm the site by walking on or nearby the tracks,” he said. “The formation the tracks are preserved in is not a very rigid rock and is notorious for easily falling apart.”
An online meet-up group of local hikers went on a search for dinosaur tracks in Red Rock late last week. The hikers apparently struck out, but the event led to a debate on the group’s website about whether such expeditions are a good idea.
Bureau of Land Management officials would prefer visitors not look for the secret sites. For one thing, most of them are not on designated trails, and “some of them are in very unsafe locations,” said Mark Spencer, BLM field manager for Red Rock and Sloan Canyon National Conservation Areas.
“We really want visitors to stay on designated trails” to minimize damage to all of the park’s sensitive natural and cultural resources, he said.
Spencer said he hopes at least some of the sites won’t be off-limits forever.
The BLM just awarded UNLV a $25,000 research grant to study fossilized footprints throughout Red Rock Canyon. The goal is to identify the origin of the tracks and their age to draw conclusions about the conditions at the time. In the process, the tracks will be photographed with high-resolution cameras to produce 3-D images or even molds.
Spencer said the year-long study should help in developing preservation plans and interpretive displays for the Red Rock visitor center.
“It should get us ahead of the curve on the threat to the resource,” he said.
Spencer said he is confident that at least one of the track sites can be opened to visitors on day, “with proper management.”
“This is very exciting. We certainly can understand the public’s interest in it,” he said.
The BLM asks anyone who finds what they believe to be tracks or other fossils on public land to call 702-515-5000 and provide the specific location and photographs of the site. It is illegal to dig up or collect fossils on public land without a permit.
A trio of hikers stumbled across the first dinosaur tracks in Red Rock Canyon in April 2010, but the discovery wasn’t confirmed by experts and made public until the fall of 2011.
Paleontologists say the tracks were probably laid down by a two-legged, meat-eating reptile the size of a large dog, which roamed a giant sand dune desert roughly 190 million years ago. At least one of the three-toed prints is ringed with what look like ripples caused when the creature’s foot splashed down in the early Jurassic muck.
The discovery touched off a flurry of additional finds, many in the same a layer of Aztec sandstone that has yielded fossilized dinosaur tracks in Utah and Arizona.
Now the race is on to keep the track sites safe long enough so they can be thoroughly documented, UNLV’s Bonde said.
“Worst-case scenario is someone trying to cast the tracks and completely destroying them. There have been some recent incidents in Utah where this has happened,” he said.
For anyone who wants to see “some world-class dinosaur tracks” without the risk of wrecking them, Bonde suggests the Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm in St. George, Utah.
Better yet, he said, just take a trip to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum on Las Vegas Boulevard and Washington Avenue. Visitors there can get a look at several specimens from St. George, and they can also see inside a lab where UNLV paleontologists sometimes work on their latest discoveries in clear view of the public.
Contact Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350. Find him on Twitter: @RefriedBrean.