The Bones of Vegas Past

When more than 1,000 paleontologists descended on Las Vegas for the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual meeting Nov. 2-5, they knew they were in for a treat—Southern Nevada is home to some of the most interesting fossil sites in the nation. Among their field-trip stops was a tract of land just beyond the sprawl of North Las Vegas, an area where 250,000 years of plant, animal and climate history is laid open like a book, if you know how to read it.

To most of us, the Upper Las Vegas Wash, a.k.a. Tule Springs, looks like raw desert waiting to be developed—which is exactly what it was until 2002. The Bureau of Land Management had plans to “dispose” of 22,000 acres of land sandwiched between Interstate 215 and the Desert National Wildlife Refuge; a street grid was even laid out. Then the BLM realized that the place is a prehistoric graveyard. “Fossils were popping out of the landscape,” BLM spokesperson Gayle Marrs-Smith says.

The area was once wet and marshy, as Corn Creek is today, and supported a diverse population of megafauna, including Columbian mammoths as large as a single-story home, ancient lions 30 percent larger than their contemporary African ancestors, giant camels and ground sloths. Trenches cut 20 feet deep by bulldozers in the 1960s—remnants of a massive scientific expedition—show a record of climate change that could rewrite the books on why these animals suddenly went extinct 10,000 years ago.

The Upper Las Vegas Wash isn’t a secret—scientists have known about it since the 1930s—but it had been somewhat forgotten. “We had to remind people,” says Jill DeStefano, organizer of the nonprofit group Protectors of Tule Springs, whose mission is to get the area designated as a national park. “We had to put it back on the front burner.” DeStefano is optimistic about Tule Springs becoming Nevada’s second national park. North Las Vegas, Las Vegas and Clark County have all passed resolutions supporting the idea, and a 2010 BLM study recommended permanently preserving 11,000 acres. But only Congress or the president can create a national park, and to date there’s no legislation pending.

Even close up, though, it’s hard for the layman to see why paleontological types get so excited about the area. There is garbage in the ravines, ATV tracks and more than a few spent shotgun shells littering the ground. You just have to trust that there’s more to the place than meets the untrained eye.

Evidence of that came in December, when paleontologists spotted something interesting sticking out of the ground and eventually dug out a 7-foot mammoth tusk. (As with most fossils removed from the site, the tusk ended up at the San Bernardino County Museum, the closest facility equipped to store them. That will change now that the new Nevada State Museum is open at the Springs Preserve.)

“The area spans a huge period of time,” says Josh Bonde, a Ph.D. candidate in UNLV’s Department of Geoscience. “The rocks represent the last couple of ice ages. To find fossil beds anywhere in the world is pretty spectacular, and they are right here in our backyard.”