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October 26, 2010
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Snowmass will turn mammoth over to Denver museum

SNOWMASS VILLAGE - The Snowmass Village Water and Sanitation District will pursue a formal agreement with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to take over the site where the bones of a mammoth have been unearthed, and to take charge of an exhibit that is consuming virtually all of the district's time.

The district's board of directors agreed unanimously Monday to draft a formal agreement with the museum, which is expected to have its staff on hand at the discovery site starting Tuesday, according to Kit Hamby, Water and Sanitation District manager.

The mammoth bones were discovered during excavation of the Ziegler Reservoir, just west of town, which the district is enlarging.

Since discovery of the bones on Oct. 14, a 2,500-square-foot area at the reservoir has been fenced off and a heated tent was erected over the spot last week. A second, 50-foot perimeter has been established outside of the fence, according to Hamby.

Excavation last week beyond the outer perimeter unearthed various bones, including what appear to be several large rib bones and some smaller bones. One was much lighter in color than the rest and could be from a different animal, Hamby said.

The latest discoveries were scattered, said Joe Enzer, the district's representative on the reservoir project, who walked with the bulldozer to keep an eye out for what might turn up. They were found 150 to 200 feet away from the mammoth, he said.

"It certainly wasn't evidence of a whole animal where we found more bones," Enzer said.

Museum officials say the finds are consistent with scavengers carrying away parts of the mammoth, Hamby said.

Provisions of the agreement with the museum call for it to provide the town with a cast (a replica to be assembled by the museum staff) of the mammoth, as well as that of a 13-foot predatory fish, an Xiphanctinus, found near Snowmass in 1967 and now housed in the museum's collection. They would both presumably be placed on display at a site or sites in Snowmass Village.

If most or all of a mammoth skeleton is not unearthed, however, the museum has indicated it would not want to construct a replica of the entire animal, Hamby said.

"In that case, we'd be getting a box of bones, if you will," he said.

The board wants to know how much of the animal the museum needs before it's willing to fill in the missing pieces. Board member Joe Farrell wondered how much the museum might charge to create a full mammoth.

The agreement would also give the district first dibs to take the bones back, if the museum ever decides it doesn't want to keep them permanently. The bones are from a juvenile mammoth; whether it is a woolly mammoth or a Columbian mammoth has yet to be determined.

Though officials hope to find an entire mammoth at the site, ground-penetrating radar used last week didn't locate anything definitive, Hamby said. Anomalies were detected, 2 to 3 feet down, but they turned out to be chunks of clay buried in the prehistoric peat bog that encapsulated the mammoth, he said.

The museum team will include paleobotonists who will be studying the peat itself, trying to identify pollen grains and looking for insects, among other things, Hamby said.

Ian Miller, paleontologist and chairman of the museum's Earth Sciences Department, last week estimated the peat was made up of 12,000-year-old plant material. Bits of leafy matter are still visible in the peat.

Miller also told district officials last week that the museum would accommodate visits by schoolchildren to the dig site.

The formal agreement is to include limited access to the site for school groups, though Enzer questioned whether that will be feasible, given weekend rains that gave way to wet snow on Monday.

"I certainly wouldn't walk in there with anything short of boots up to your knees," he said. "I'm actually worried that the tent may sink into the ground...it has gotten so wet out there."

Road improvements and a boardwalk to the actual dig site may be necessary if the area is to accommodate visitors, Enzer said.

"I think the site could be difficult, but it could be an unbelievable opportunity," said board Chairman Doug Throm.

At the very least, the museum has offered to provide a staffer who will take the collection of bones that have been unearthed so far around to area schools for presentations.

The bones, which are not fossilized, or turned to stone, require care to ensure they are kept damp, and Hamby expressed worry that they will begin to deteriorate. The museum will keep them in a climate-controlled environment, but the Water and Sanitation Department has been spraying them with distilled water to keep them moist during the public displays. They are wrapped in dark plastic and kept damp the rest of the time.

The bones were put on display at the district offices for three days last week, and Hamby estimated 1,000-plus adults and kids came to take a look. At one point on Friday, there was a one-hour wait to see the display, and police were needed to control traffic, he said.

"We can't work anymore. We have to devote our entire staff to just showing bones," Hamby said.

The bones will be on display at the Water and Sanitation District office, 0017 Club House Drive, from 2-4 p.m. Tuesday and 1-4 p.m. on Wednesday.

janet@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Oct 26, 2010 12:11PM Published Oct 26, 2010 12:10PM Copyright 2010 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.