Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

There is a logical reason why 3,800 prehistoric bones have been dug up at Snowmass. It remains a mystery, however, why Ziegler Reservoir was such a deathtrap.

Dr. Kirk Johnson of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science acknowledged last week that the deathtrap theory could be valid, given the diversity and ages of species revealed by fossils. The unfolding details should be fascinating.

Equally fascinating are the circumstances that led to the dig. Doug Ziegler, the former owner, said in an interview last week that if he hadn’t met Art Roberts on an autumn day in 1958, the bones might never have been discovered.

Ziegler was 31 when he took his family on vacation from Wisconsin to Colorado. They drove to Aspen over Independence Pass, then a rough dirt road, and spent a week touring the Roaring Fork Valley.

One day they drove toward the Snowmass Divide on Upper Brush Creek Road. A mile from the top, they stopped to watch a man skidding a log out of the forest behind a draft horse. The man was talkative. “We had the car window down for an hour,” mused Ziegler, as Brush Creek rancher Art Roberts recounted the local history. When Roberts asked if he could ride in the car with them and be their guide, the Zieglers said, sure.

This led to Ziegler buying a portion of Roberts’ ranch, including the future site of Ziegler Reservoir. In 1958, however, there was no lake, only a meadow. Roberts had pointed it out to Ziegler on a horseback tour of the property. “If you pushed some dirt around and made a dam,” he suggested, “you’d have yourself a lake.”

In 1961, two years after he bought the ranch, Ziegler hired Johnny Hyrup to bulldoze a dam. Ziegler filled the reservoir from an irrigation ditch. He stocked the pond with trout, but with only 9 feet of water, the fish died of winter kill. The watering hole was a boon to wildlife, however, attracting elk, deer, bears, foxes, and coyotes.

Ziegler, now 84, gave the property to his seven children in 1976. His oldest son made a deal with the Snowmass Water district to buy the lake as water storage for the growing town of Snowmass Village. “At that time,” Ziegler said, “we agree to let them increase it by five times, so they drained it last summer, started dredging in October, and that’s when they started finding bones.”

Dr. Johnson calls the Ziegler dig one of the most exciting paleontological finds in North America. He shows slides of “Flintstone Moments” where museum staff and volunteers manhandle enormous bones. The interest in the Ziegler dig has been tremendous for what Dr. Johnson calls our “cultural patrimony.”

People of all ages flock to see the bones and learn about the animals, not just because Dr. Johnson is a fine speaker, but because they are drawn to a connection with extinct life forms from the distant past. Biologist and philosopher E.O. Wilson calls this attraction “biophilia,” an innate love for life that elicits awe and wonder: “A sense of genetic unity, kinship and deep history are among the values that bond us to the living environment,” Wilson wrote.

We are fascinated by the ground sloths, mammoths, mastodons, horses, camels, and bison that were victims of a natural deathtrap. As we’re marveling at ancient bones today, extinctions are off the charts because of a much larger manmade deathtrap, as a recent news article described:

“Pollution and global warming are pushing the world’s oceans to the brink of a mass extinction of marine life unseen for tens of millions of years. These symptoms could be the harbinger of wider disruptions in the interlocking web of biological and chemical interactions that scientists now call the Earth system.”

Biophilia draws us to bones from a past Earth system called the Pleistocene while today, during the Holocene, living species are being reduced to bones for musings during the next Earth system, which some are calling the Anthropocene. During these three epochs, human beings have grown from primitive nomads into a geologic force. Unless humans alter our course, our bones one day will litter deathtraps of our own making.

A primary lesson from Snowmass is that extinction is real – and final. Perhaps that’s the ultimate Flintstone moment.

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