It's Not Illegal to Find, Keep & Buy Certain Fossils (Without Being a Paleontologist), But There Are Plenty of Rules & Limitations
I've had a few people ask me if I collect and drill my own stones, or if my dinosaur fossils are from Alberta. The answer is no - and there are good (legal) reasons for that. Recently, someone also asked me about the laws regarding the collection, ownership and sale of fossils in general. My first thought was, that question could be an LL.M. thesis, given how diverse and complex the specifics can be! Since I am not up to writing a second LL.M. in this lifetime, I hoped that someone had beaten me to it, but unfortunately all I could find is a book from 1997, limited to United States' laws only, and somewhat out of date (fortunately, the book is being rewritten to include international information). Many smaller articles are even more narrowly focused, and many of them are not publicly available online. There is one partial list of statutes, government websites and articles here, but the material is very incomplete, and in some instances not annotated or otherwise explained.
So, here is my broad overview of fossil law around the world; I hope to expand on the various sub-topics in future posts. Special attention will be paid to Alberta law. Disclaimer: you cannot rely on any of this article as legal advice. Specific laws can change, and may also have exceptions not discussed in detail here. The main goal of this piece is to lay out the various angles you need to consider regarding the collection and use of fossil material. It should provide a good jumping-off point, but cannot possibly cover everything you might need to know. Consult an expert where necessary!
Collecting Fossils: Myriad Factors To Be Aware Of
The laws covering whether or not you can retrieve, dig for, keep or sell any particular fossil vary widely, due to many different distinctions. The following are some of the most important topics that come into play when comparing the different laws governing different fossils.
Jurisdiction - Each country, and region within a country, may have entirely different laws from its neighbours. Reasons for the variations are numerous: the local legal traditions (e.g., common law vs. civil code jurisdictions), cultural and historical values, and of course, the type and abundance of fossils found in the country/region.
The United States nicely encapsulates most of the legal fossil extremes within its borders. The laws vary from no restrictions at all on private land (where all fossils may be excavated and sold legally) while marking many federal parks and preserves completely off-limits ("Casual collecting is not allowed within the National Parks or other lands managed by the National Park Service, or lands administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation.") In addition, each state's laws differ in regards to collection on state land.
In Alberta, laws regarding fossil collection and ownership are fairly restrictive, as explained by the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Even so, surface collection is allowed without a permit, and possession of such Alberta-found fossils is legal, although the government retains ownership. (All such fossils must remain in the province.) In contrast, British Columbia has no laws specifically protecting fossils.
A tip if you are researching fossil law in your jurisdiction: the applicable statutes could be legislating historical preservation, land use and construction, geology and natural resources, cultural heritage, or even tourism. This fact alone makes it difficult to be sure you have covered all of the possibilities.
Location - As seen above, the specific location within a jurisdiction frequently comes into play. The various US states have a dizzying array of variations regarding whether you can collect some fossils along road cuts, state highways and public lands that are not nature preserves or parks: see Oregon, Texas, Alabama and Utah for examples. Mining operations, construction, and special permits may make otherwise legal collecting areas off-limits.
The United States is far from the only jurisdiction that makes distinctions based on location alone. Canada does not allow any plant, animal or mineral material to be removed from a National Park without a permit, (National Parks General Regulations, s. 10), and that encompasses fossils. Alberta prohibits surface collection in provincial parks. A patchwork of laws not specific to fossils governs various areas in New South Wales, Australia.
Fossil Type - Some jurisdictions will have varying degrees of permits and protection depending on the fossil type. A major distinction is often made between plant and invertebrate (think ammonites, crinoids etc.) fossils and the remains of vertebrate animals (those with a backbone). The US federal land laws forbid any collection of vertebrate fossils without an institutional permit, but allow hobby collection of common invertebrate and plant fossils on most federal land , and even commercial collection of petrified wood. Utah and Florida are two of many US states to have similar restrictions, but others such as Alabama allow all but one type of fossil (Alabama's State Fossil, a whale) to be collected and even removed from the state without permits.
This is a good place to mention that fossils themselves are usually clearly distinguished from many other types of artifacts and mined objects, and that human artifacts are often more vigorously protected than fossilized materials. Archaeological sites are expressly excluded from the fairly liberal Alabama rules mentioned above, for example, and Alberta and Saskatchewan, among others, treat the two as separate categories. As explained by the Paleontological Society of Austin, Texas:
"The laws on artifacts are much more restrictive [than those on fossils], for two good reasons.
There are vastly fewer archeological artifacts than there are fossils. As such, the scientific importance of an archaeological site is typically much greater in a relative sense than most fossil localities.
Secondly, archeological sites may include human remains, funerary and sacred objects, or other objects of cultural patrimony."
Scientific Value, Rarity - This point is connected to fossil type, discussed above. Some fossils are so common and well known to science that laws will not restrict their collection by the general public, or will enact only minimal controls and limits. The US federal land permissions explicitly mention that collecting is limited to "common invertebrate and plant fossils" [emphasis added]. Anything unusual can still be claimed by the government and turned over to paleontologists for research and preservation.
Here in Alberta, while no one can dig for any fossils without a permit, the surface collection rules reflect this line between scientifically-significant discoveries and more common finds. Even pieces of vertebrate animals, including dinosaur bones and teeth, can be picked up and taken home from some areas (as long as home is in Alberta). As in the US, anything rare or unusual should be reported to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, and that includes not only surface fossils but any partially-buried finds of interest. There are just so many loose pieces around Alberta - many of which are too weathered to be identified as a particular body part or even a specific species, and some of which have travelled many kilometres from their source due to glacial activity or modern floods - that many surface bones and teeth cannot advance scientific knowledge. In these cases, finders may be permitted to keep even larger pieces. More discussion of collecting and reporting in Alberta can be found here.
Time - Since laws frequently do change, some older specimens may be legal while new collection or absolute ownership is no longer permitted for new finds. For example, the province of Saskatchewan claims complete ownership in all fossils from the province after specific dates only (s. 66), as does Alberta (see "Dispositions"). So even in strictly controlled jurisdictions, legal ownership of some fossils may exist, grandfathered in for previously-legal collection.
Possession, Ownership and Commercial Use - Being allowed to collect and keep a fossil does not always mean you can give it away or sell it. As mentioned above, Albertans are allowed to collect some surface fossils, but the province is considered the legal owner of the pieces, and the fossils may not leave Alberta. In many other places, amateur collection confers ownership to the finder, but the fossils may not be sold - see the US federal land rules discussed above for an example.
Rules on who can sell certain (locally-found) fossils can often be quite strict. Legislation in this area varies considerably, however. In some areas, such as US private land, no restrictions exist, but even tightly controlled jurisdictions may issue permits for commercial collection and use, especially for common fossils. As discussed above, petrified wood can be collected for commercial use on US federal land by those with permits, the only commercial fossil exception. Even in Alberta, the government can transfer ownership of some types of fossils to individuals, which can lead to resale; potentially-commercial types include ammonites, pieces of ammolite, and petrified wood. Other jurisdictions may have minimal restrictions and a large fossil trade, such as Morocco.
What Happens When Someone Breaks the Law?
Given the complexity of legislation regarding fossils, illegal and prohibited activity sometimes occurs by accident, but given the value assigned to rare and unusual specimens by private collectors, some illegal trade in full skeletons and highly unusual pieces is completely intentional, producing a black market in fossilized materials. Authorities are increasingly taking this law-breaking seriously, involving serious consequences for the perpetrators. Convicted fossil thieves can be fined, jailed, or both.
The effects of fossil smuggling and theft can have far-reaching impacts, beyond what happens to the thieves. Since professional paleontologists usually do not publish research on stolen or illegally-exported fossils, important scientific discoveries may remain unknown for years, or may be called into question. Illegally-collected fossils are frequently returned to their source countries, but there can be years of legal wrangling and many delays.
Not sure if that fossil you found is scientifically important? Wondering if a particular fossilized animal is common? Ask a paleontologist. Their years of training and experience uniquely position them to answer your question; if they can't, they at least will know who to refer you to. Many museums and universities have programs that help the public identify fossils and protect scientifically-important specimens.
In Alberta, the Royal Tyrrell has an online form for fossil reporting, while the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto holds free clinics for specimen identification. In Florida, the Florida Museum of Natural History offers several different ways to identify local fossils. So, research your local university or natural history museum to find out who can help you with your questions. (I hope to collect a list of such institutions for a blog post next year, so please leave a comment with information on any programs you know).