2,000-year-old bison bone bed ‘destroyed’

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A team of archaeological investigators, anthropologists and Crow tribal officials today are headed to the site of a 2,000-year-old bison kill site that was unearthed last summer as part of Westmoreland Resources Inc.’s plans to expand its Absaloka Coal Mine.

2,000-year-old bison bone bed 'destroyed'
Archaeologists in 2010 uncovered a prehistoric bison kill site on the Crow Indian Reservation near Hardin. Westmoreland Resources Inc. hopes to strip mine coal on the land as part of a proposed expansion to its Absaloka Mine. The archaeological site was discovered as part of a National Historic Preservation Act investigation into the planned mine expansion. To the dismay of tribal officials and anthropologists, the site was eventually excavated with a back hoe in 2011 [Credit: Great Falls Tribune]

The site, known as the Sarpy Creek Bison Kill site, was first discovered during a resource identification effort required under the National Historic Preservation Act for the company to expand the mine.

The largest bison bone bed was estimated to cover almost 3,000 square meters and contained the remains of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of butchered bison remains and prehistoric spear points dating back to the Late Archaic period, Utah State University anthropologist Judson Finley said.

Finley, director of the field school at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, has over the years worked with the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Tribes on archaeological preservation. Finley said the site unearthed at the Absaloka Mine site is a significant archaeological find on par with the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site in Alberta, and should have been painstakingly excavated by expert archaeologists over the course of three to five years.

“All of these remains are highly butchered bison remains that are beautifully preserved and extremely rare,” said Finley, who will be among the team headed to the site today to examine the extent of damage. “This site was full of information about the way people used to live 2,000 years ago.”

Finley said if the site had been properly preserved and carefully excavated, it likely would have qualified for designation under National Register of Historic Places or as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Calls to Westmoreland’s corporate office were directed to the Montana mine office, and mine officials there did not return a message seeking comment Thursday.

According to Crow Tribe cultural director Burton Pretty On Top, officials for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal Office of Surface Mining and GCM Services, a private consultant hired by Westmoreland, all signed off on data recovery plan last year, which lead to the extensive excavation of the site in late summer 2011.

Finley called the data recovery plan, which was written by GCM Service’s owner Gene Munson, a joke.

“I can say with certainty that data recovery plan that was approved to excavate that site would have never been approved by any state historic preservation office,” Finely said.

According to Pretty on Top and Finley, rather than go through a lengthy and expensive data recovery process at the site — which is what would have been required on public land — GCM Services excavated the site in 2-meter squares with a backhoe and power screen to separate the spear points and bones from the dirt.

The bison bones are now piled several feet high and remain exposed next to the holes they were dug out of, Finley said.

“Basically what we have right now is this big hole that is roughly the size of an Olympic swimming pool where there once was a really beautiful bison bone bed, and sitting next to that is a giant pile of extremely valuable butchered bison remains just laying out on the ground in the middle of nowhere, exposed to the weather with cows stomping around on them,” Finley said.

Pretty On Top and assistant Crow cultural director Richard White said GCM Services went forward with an extensive excavation of the site without notifying tribal elders and other tribal officials. Pretty On Top said the former director of the Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Office, Dale Old Horn, was the only tribal official who know about the plan and approved it without notifying tribal leaders.

Pretty On Top said excavation of the site violated the Apsaalooke Tribe Cultural Resource Protection Act of 2005.

“Permission was granted by Dale Old Horn by himself without telling the tribal chairman, without telling the cultural committee, and without telling the cultural director,” Pretty On Top said.

Old Horn could not be reached for comment and Munson did not return a phone call to his office late Thursday afternoon.

Finely said notes from a July 16, 2010, meeting showed that the people who made the decision to approve the backhoe excavation plan were only considering a “balance between costs and data recovery,” and appeared to give no thought to site preservation and avoidance.

“What should have been the major topic of discussion was, ‘How can we avoid this site, and if we can’t avoid it, how can we do something extremely valuable with it?’” Finely said.

“In my opinion, this happened because the coal company thought they could get away with a shortened compliance process that wasn’t going to cost them as much money,” Finley added. “I think plain and simple it was an issue of money.”

Author: John S. Adams  | Source: Great Falls Tribune [October 19, 2012]

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