But they had no idea just how unique the site was until an international team of scientists showed up to study and document the area’s phenomenal resources, according to local resident Lee Shenton.
Shenton, who heads the Utah Friends of Paleontology’s Gastonia Chapter, said that more than 200 prehistoric dinosaur, crocodile and bird tracks have been discovered to date.
The tracks date back an estimated 112 million years to the Early Cretaceous Period, and many of them are remarkably well-preserved in the underlying bedrock, according to Shenton.
“The paleontologists tell us that at least a couple of tracks there are very high quality and represent the best example of a particular animal’s tracks in North America, if not the world,” he said.
The tracks were preserved by sediment that rushed over them, and during the next 112 million years, they lithified and petrified.
Some tracks clearly show which direction an animal was moving when it passed through the area, according to Shenton.
In one special case, researchers have documented a three-toed theropod’s track that stretches over 17 consecutive footprints, he said.
“The quality is so good that you can see the individual pads between the knuckles and the claw marks at the end of the toe,” he said.
In addition to the theropod tracks, researchers have found at least nine other kinds of tracks, including footprints from hadrosaurs, sauropods and ankylosaurs, a smaller yet heavily-armored dinosaur.
One of the most significant finds is a dromaeosaur track — the only known one of its kind in North America, according to Bureau of Land Management-Utah Canyon Country District Paleontologist Rebecca Hunt-Foster.
While locals in the know have been visiting the area for years, a local resident first reported the site to the BLM in 2009 after coming across the tracks during a hike.
“Once they recognized the importance of the site, they re-routed the road in cooperation with Grand County and fenced off the area so that it could be protected and identified for future planning,” Shenton said.
Gastonia Chapter volunteers and others later came forward to help out with excavations, using everything from trowels to screwdrivers and paint-can sticks to remove layers of muck and dirt around the tracks.
The excavation process picked up when scientists from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Poland, China and South Korea arrived on site.
The recent announcement of their finds garnered national and international attention, and given all of that publicity, Hunt-Foster said the BLM is being cautious at this point to reveal the exact location.
Needless to say, Shenton discourages anyone from vandalizing the site’s resources — or even attempting to remove them.
“They’re very valuable, scientifically, in a very hard stone layer, but that layer is very brittle,” he said. “Any attempt to remove or even make a mold of them can damage the tracks.”
He hopes that interpretive signs and educational materials at the site will help visitors understand why they should leave the tracks alone.
Despite concerns about future impacts at the site, he believes that ongoing and future development of the area will be of tremendous value to the public as a whole.
“Some of the tracks are just so good and so interesting that that’s the benefit of having public viewing, especially with the interpretive signage,” he said.
The BLM is hoping to open the site to the public in mid-Oct-ober, according to Shenton.
Hunt-Foster said the agency is asking people to postpone their visits until work at the site is finished.
“We are asking people to hold off a bit and let us finish the research we need to do,” she said.