One Man's Trash is Another Man's Treasure
May 15, 2009
By Diane Tipton
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Statewide Information Officer
Picking up micro-trash-candy wrappers, bottle caps, sales slips etc.-is one of the less glamorous tasks of a Montana State Park manager, but once in a while this menial task comes with an unexpected reward.
Ryan Sokoloski, manager of Makoshika State Park near Glendive, was on micro-trash duty last August when he made the discovery of a lifetime.
"I was walking near the maintenance shop and the visitor center picking up food wrappers, bits of foil and that sort of thing when I saw what looked like a big root. I slowly headed in that direction to check it out," Sokoloski said.
The closer he got the more the root looked like a horn. That is when he realized he had his first big personal "find."
"I've learned some about archeology working here. Most of the cool stuff is found by accident," he said. "That is exactly what this was, absolutely dumb luck."
What he found was a buffalo skull exposed, perhaps for the first time in many, many years, along the edge of a coulee. The large fragment included the forehead, an eye socket, most of one horn and a stub of horn on the other side.
Sokoloski's background working with experts in archeology and paleontology helped him to safely collect the nearly intact skull. Makoshika State Park is widely known for the fossil remains of dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex and triceratops. The park's visitor center exhibits explain the geologic, fossil and other prehistoric stories of the park.
"The skull was located on the edge of the coulee where the next heavy rain could easily carry it away," Sokoloski said.
He knew the next step was to get the buffalo skull entered into the archeological collection at the park. It sat for three or four weeks on a counter in the visitor center waiting to be catalogued when Max Martell, a Lakota Sioux living in the Glendive area, dropped by for one of his frequent visits to trade jokes.
"So, you found the big one, Bison antiquus," Max said.
That was the first time that Sokoloski realized he might not know exactly what it was that he had found. He assumed it was a buffalo skull from one to two hundred years ago. Martell, with his interest in Native American and Paleo-Indian history, was particularly interested in buffalo.
Bison antiquus were common 10,000-20,000 years ago and were part of the "megafauna" of the Ice Age.
Once Sokoloski realized what he might have found, he contacted Sara Scott, the Montana State Parks heritage resource manager, for help in getting the skull to the University of Montana Zoological Museum in Missoula for positive identification.
"As streams are down cut and erosion occurs, it is not unusual for prehistoric remains to be exposed," Scott said.
Some archaeological sites in Makoshika State Park are from the Paleo-Indian age, over 10,000 years ago. Paleo-Indians are believed to have hunted Bison antiquus.
David Dyer of University of Montana zoology department said Bison antiquus were about 15 to 25 percent larger than modern bison. Bison antiquus became extinct at the end of the Ice Age, while Bison occidentalis lived on a bit longer. Bison occidentalis, perhaps with some contributions by Bison antiquus, is thought to have evolved into today's modern bison.
Dyer said other records of Bison antiquus exist in Montana, but finding a fossil specimen of this species is a relatively rare event. Other megafauna of the same period as Sokoloski's find include the mammoth, camel, saber-toothed cat, dire wolf, and the short-faced bear-and other species that exist today including deer, caribou, and the horse.
For those who would like to get a close look at the Bison antiquus skull and other important fossils found at Makoshika State Park, plan to attend the open house for the newly refurbished visitor center on June 13.
For details on the open house and other activities planned at the park throughout the summer, call: 406-377-6356; check the FWP events planner or go to the Friends of Makoshika web site at: makoshika.org.