Finders keepers is not the case in Canada when it comes to the popular pastime of fossil hunting, with each province and territory having laws that protect and preserve fossils found within its borders.
If a leg of lambeosaurus or a woolly mammoth tusk might look good on your fossil-picking menu – think again. Collecting fossils is a popular pastime. But without a permit, any fossil found in Canada belongs not to the finder but to the Crown or, on Indigenous land, to that specific community. Provincial, territorial and federal government departments work closely together to protect and preserve fossil resources.
Fossils are found all over Canada, but Alberta and British Columbia have the greatest number of fossil finds. Yukon Territory is also a hotbed of discoveries.
Western Canada is home to many fossils from the Middle and Lower Palaeozic Eras (500 million to 360 million years ago), to the late Cretaceous (66 million years ago) and the Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million years ago). In areas where the Ice Age made an impact, like Ontario, layers of rock, scoured down by glaciers that receded 12,000 years ago, took away “younger” fossils. Fossils in these areas of limestone, sandstone and shale are from the Middle and Lower Palaeozic Eras and range from marine invertebrates like trilobites to sea lilies and corals.
Amateur fossil finds happen frequently. According to a CBC story, up to 75 per cent of discoveries are made by amateurs. Finds over the last few years include tyrannosaur footprints and a mammoth tooth in B.C., fossilized scorpions and giant trilobites in Ontario, and an ancient, pre-dinosaur era reptile on Prince Edward Island. In 2021, an amateur fossil hunter on Vancouver Island found the remains of a turtle dating to 85 million years ago.
The federal government’s Cultural Property Export Control List oversees the export of “palaeontological specimens recovered from the soil of Canada, the territorial sea of Canada or the inland or other internal waters of Canada.” This includes fossils of vertebrates (animals with a backbone, like dinosaurs, birds or mammals) and invertebrates (animals without a backbone, like trilobites, scorpions or snails) valued at more than $500, as well as fossil amber and plant fossils. Fossil collecting is not allowed in provincial and national parks. The Canadian Fossil Resource Management Committee, founded in 2019, coordinates the protection and preservation of fossil resources at the federal, provincial and territorial levels.
While various federal and provincial/territorial fossil regulations apply across the country, the rules tend to be a bit more relaxed in some places, especially with respect to invertebrate fossils. A mason jar of trilobite and brachiopod fossils in my basement is testament to that. Royal Ontario Museum scientists viewed and assessed it years ago during a “meet the experts” event with no questions asked but with a smiling nod to my kids’ “excellent example of a trilobite fossil” from the Whitby Shale site on the shores of Lake Ontario. The experts did, however, raise an eyebrow at some vertebrate fossils that other folks brought in for assessment.
Let’s look at fossil regulations in Canada’s fossil hotspots.
Alberta fossil regulations
Alberta’s Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller says on its website that the “fossilized remains of plants and animals, or traces of their activities, are protected under the Government of Alberta’s Historical Resources Act. Violation of the Act is punishable by fines of up to $50,000 and/or one year in prison.”
The Royal Tyrrell says that if you find something of interest:
- photograph it
- locate it on a map and note its coordinates using GPS
- leave it buried and report your findings to the museum
Dan Spivak, head of Royal Tyrrell’s Resource Management Program, said in an email that the province’s Historical Resources Act treats all palaeontological resources (invertebrate or vertebrate) equally. The exception is those on First Nations land as First Nations have their own protocols in place.
Dinosaur Provincial Park east of Calgary is a popular spot. “The rocks in the Dinosaur Provincial Park area are incredibly fossiliferous and that area is considered one of the richest fossil deposits in Alberta,” said Spivak.
The Royal Tyrrell is home to 175,000 fossil specimens, and the museum receives about 200 public fossil reports a year.
British Columbia fossil regulations
In 2018, British Columbia unveiled the Fossil Management Framework to make collectors – or others, like contractors building a structure – aware that all fossil finds must be reported to the province’s Heritage Branch.
One of B.C.’s most popular attractions is Yoho National Park’s Burgess Shale. A UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) world heritage site, the Burgess Shale boasts “fossil evidence of some of the earliest complex animals that existed in the oceans of our planet over 505 million years ago,” according to a Parks Canada news release. The site hosted more than 1,217 visitors in 2022, noted James Eastham, Public Relations and Communications Officer for Parks Canada at the Lake Louise Yoho Kootenay Field Unit.
The Burgess Shale was also the focus of an investigation by Parks Canada wardens, the RCMP, the Longueuil (Québec) Police Department and the Royal Ontario Museum. It resulted in a Québec resident’s 2020 arrest, the forfeiture of 45 fossils taken illegally from the site, a $20,000 fine and five months of house arrest.
Elsewhere in the province, thieves made out with early-Cretaceous dinosaur tracks from northeastern B.C.’s Six Peaks Dinosaur Track Site (designated a significant palaentological resource under the province’s Land Act). This led to the conviction of two perpetrators, who received 25- and 30-day jail sentences and fines of $15,000 and $20,000.
Yukon Territory fossil regulations
Fossils found most often in Yukon are the woolly mammoth, prehistoric horse and steppe bison.
According to Julien Gignac, in a 2020 article in The Narwhal, the concerns of Yukon First Nations over the removal of culturally-significant woolly mammoth tusks in areas where placer mining (gold extraction from sand and gravel) occurs triggered significant discussions about the efficacy of Yukon’s Historic Resources Act. The tusks are sometimes sold for exorbitant prices to the international ivory trade.
The Historic Resources Act requires a permit to look for and remove fossils. The 27-year-old Act does not yet include a process for getting a permit to dig for palaeontological objects. However, permits to excavate archaeological objects cover potential excavations and must be directly requested from the government under the Act’s Archaeological Sites Regulation. Any finds in the territory become the property of the Yukon government.
Cameron Webber, a communications analyst with Yukon’s Tourism & Culture office, said via email that fossils “are protected in the Yukon as historic objects under the Historic Resources Act.” This includes any “plant or animal that (a) is of value for its historic or palaeontological significance, and (b) is or has been discovered on or beneath land in the Yukon, or is or has been submerged or partially submerged beneath the surface of any watercourse or permanent body of water in the Yukon.”
According to Webber, land use regulations protect placer mining finds in the gold-mining Klondike region. “Staff with the government’s palaeontology unit visit Klondike placer mines every summer to ensure operators understand that fossils are protected and their discovery must be reported.”
The territorial government also works closely with the territory’s 14 Yukon First Nations and the Inuvialuit. According to Webber:
The Historic Resources Act and the Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA) specify responsibilities for heritage resource management on and off Yukon First Nation Settlement Land. Some Yukon First Nations have also enacted heritage legislation, including palaeontological objects, within their traditional territories. In addition, consistent with UFA Chapter 13, Yukon First Nation (YFN) Final Agreements and the Yukon Forum Heritage Working Group (HWG) MOU signed in 2019, the Yukon Government has committed to collaborative management of heritage resources with Yukon First Nations who meet quarterly to work on heritage issues such as palaeontology.
Education and enforcement
Keeping members of the fossil-hunting public informed about their obligations is essential. For many governments, it involves a blend of enforcement and education.
“Education in regards to reporting fossil discoveries is important,” said the Royal Tyrrell’s Spivak. “We include ‘what to do if you find a fossil’ information on our website and in some of our public programs.” The Yukon Government’s Webber said the territory’s Yukon Geological Survey staff offer an educational supporting role during placer mining site visits, ensuring that mine operators “understand the guidelines and appreciate the immense scientific and cultural value of these discoveries.”
Webber adds that Yukon’s vast geographical area and increased number of finds makes it “an ongoing challenge to ensure people understand and comply with our laws and regulations to provide appropriate protection of palaeontological objects.”
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DISCLAIMER The information in this article was correct at time of publishing. The law may have changed since then. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of LawNow or the Centre for Public Legal Education Alberta.