Resource Management

There are many individuals in the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology’s thirty-year history who have contributed to its success as Canada’s dinosaur museum. Maurice Stefanuk (1924-2016) was one of the Museum’s first technicians and research assistants who worked on many of the original specimens that are on display today in our Dinosaur Hall. Born and raised in Drumheller, Alberta, Maurice spent his childhood exploring the badlands. During one outing, he found a large carnivorous dinosaur tooth—a small discovery that sparked a life-long interest in fossils from the area.

During World War II, Stefanuk served as a sonar operator in the Royal Canadian Navy in the Battle of the North Atlantic protecting vital transport convoys from German U-boats. He made twenty-six dangerous transits from Canada to England.  In the fall of 1982, he joined the Royal Tyrrell Museum team, helping build exhibits as a dinosaur fossil preparator. After the Museum opened in 1985, he took field photographs of dinosaur quarries being excavated along the Red Deer River north of Drumheller and hiked the rugged badlands relocating them for Toronto-based palaeontology legend Dr. Loris S. Russell. New information learned from these dozens of sites was used in a recently published dinosaur biostratigraphic study.

Feb 8- Albertosaurus Skull

His biggest contribution to science was the discovery of two of the best skeletons of the comparatively rare tyrannosaur Albertosaurus (the Museum’s iconic symbol). One was discovered in 1973 east of Trochu, and the other in 1985, not far from the Museum. Both important specimens have been utilized in a number of displays and landmark scientific studies.

Albertosaurus has also become Alberta’s unofficial provincial dinosaur with representation on coins, stamps, and as part of the original Museum logo. When Canada House, home to the Canadian High Commission (and one of the most iconic buildings that make up Trafalgar Square in London, England), was undertaking some major renovations to reflect the art and culture of each province and territory, it was only natural for the Alberta Room to house an Albertosaurus. Just before he passed away, the cast of the skull of the second Albertosaurus Maurice discovered went on display.

Feb 8- Canada House

Image credit: High Commission of Canada in the United Kingdom.

Remarkably, during his time of service in the war, a picture of Maurice was taken on shore leave in Trafalgar Square, just a stone’s throw away from the future Canada House.  Of course he did not know it, but some seventy years after that picture was taken, a fossil he would find thirty years later would be displayed less than 100 metres from where that picture was taken.

Feb 8- Stefanuk


Palaeontological resources in Alberta are protected under the Historical Resources Act. This not only includes fossils, but also palaeontological significant sites. There are three sites designated in the province: the Willow Creek Hoodoos, Grande Cache Trackways, and Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Egg Site (Devil’s Coulee). The Resource Management program at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology (RTMP) manages the protection and public use at these sites. I am going to discuss some of the changes that we have recently made at Devil’s Coulee to improve the protection and visitor experience at the site.

Devil’s Coulee is the richest dinosaur nesting site found in Canada and the third nesting site discovered in North America. The site was found in May 1987 near Warner, Alberta and was designated a Provincial Historic Resource same year due to its significance. Finds at the site include young dinosaurs, eggs, embryonic bones, and nests of hadrosaurs, as well as fossils from other types of animals from 75 million years ago. With the significant discoveries and the ongoing research producing new discoveries, the site is very sensitive in nature.

Since the mid-1990s, the RTMP has worked with the Devil’s Coulee Cooperating Society and its museum in Warner to provide tours to the site. Over the past two years, we have been working to find a balance between protection at Devil’s Coulee and quality visitor experiences. Currently, the site is only accessible through a guided tour. This will continue as a form of protection from theft and vandalism, but also as a way to provide an enhanced visitor experience. Improvements have been made to training the tour guides to increase their knowledge of fossils, geology, and dinosaurs. As many of the fossils are very small, we are also developing a dedicated path for the guides to follow, and will install a low fence in the most sensitive areas to ensure that fossils are not inadvertently destroyed during tours.


The RTMP is updating photos on the signs and creating a relevant story line for the hike to follow. One sign will even include touch specimens of eggshell. People who visit the site can also take part in an activity to search for fossils at a microsite. We are adding a fossil box for people to identify the fossils they find to ones in the box. This provides the opportunity to see and touch real fossils. However, it is important to note that as a designated site, removal of fossils from Devil’s Coulee is illegal. Visitors are informed of this and the tour guides carefully monitor all activities to prevent theft. We hope that with the guides, signs, and activities we will accommodate a number of learning styles so that everyone enjoys their visit.

We are happy to be able to run tours out to a sensitive site such as this and provide a variety of interpretive activities, while still maintaining the integrity of the site. Implementation of the new protective and interpretive elements is still in progress, but should be ready for visitors to enjoy by May 2015. If you would like more information about tours at Devil’s Coulee you can visit the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Heritage Museum website:

– Jen Bancescu, Resource Management

Every spring and summer the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Resource Management Program receives phone calls and emails from amateur fossil collectors, wondering how they can legally collect fossils in Alberta. To ensure that you are collecting fossils in a legal and responsible manner in Alberta, follow these guidelines.

Disclaimer: These guidelines apply to all fossils in Alberta except ammonite shell (I will discuss ammonite shell collecting in a future post) and does not apply for provincial parks or other protected areas and lands under federal jurisdiction (such as national parks, First Nations Reservations and military bases).

Always get landowner permission. It is imperative that you contact the landowner of any property you want to access for fossil collecting. Not only is it the law, but it helps to maintain good relations between landowners and fossil collectors, both professional and amateur. In the case of Crown land, contact the managing government department as there may be special access conditions you need to follow.

Don’t excavate any fossil unless you have a Permit to Excavate Palaeontological Resources. It is legal to surface collect for fossils, but excavation permits are only issued to professional palaeontologists for research purposes.

In Alberta, excavation of a fossil is defined as exposing, extracting, or removing palaeontological resources (fossils) from their original context in the surrounding bedrock or enclosing sediment (Archaeological and Palaeontological Research Permit Regulation). If any kind of digging is needed to free a fossil from the ground then you should leave it where you found it.

For fossils such as petrified wood, plant leaf impressions and oyster shell you can apply for ownership through the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology (RTMP). For most types of fossils found in Alberta though, the ownership resides with the Crown so you can’t sell, trade, or remove the fossil from Alberta.

If you live in Alberta, you can take the fossil home with you but if you are visiting from outside the province, you cannot take any fossils when you return home.

If you happen to find a fossil that looks significant, leave it where you found it, but note its location either on a map or with a hand-held GPS unit (many smartphones have a GPS function). Take photos of the fossil. Close-ups so we can identify it, and some from farther back so we can use landmarks to relocate the fossil. Then, when you are somewhere safe, contact the RTMP to report the find.

When done in a legal and responsible manner, fossil collecting can be a rewarding hobby that benefits the collector and science. By working with the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology and the provincial universities, amateur collectors can have a significant impact on what we know about Alberta’s past.

If you have any further questions about collecting fossils in Alberta, email me.

-Dan Spivak, Head, Resource Management Program

Alberta’s palaeontological resources (fossils) became legally protected on July 5, 1978 when they were added to the province’s Historical Resources Act (HRA). This is the legislation and its associated regulations that we use to preserve and protect Alberta’s plentiful fossils.

I will discuss the finer details of Alberta’s fossil legislation and protection strategies in future posts, but for now, I’ll provide an overview of the palaeontological aspects of the HRA and the associated regulations. It should be noted that Alberta’s HRA is a broad piece of legislation that protects several types of historic resources, but this post is limited to how the Act relates to fossils.

Historical Resources Act

The Historical Resources Act is the primary piece of legislation used to protect fossils (and other historic resources) in Alberta. Probably the most significant part of the HRA is that it makes all fossils, within Alberta, property of the Crown in Right of Alberta. Essentially, all fossils found in Alberta, whether on private or public land, are Crown-owned resources, managed and protected by Alberta Culture on behalf of Albertans.

Some of the highlights of the HRA as it relates to palaeontology are:

1)     It provides a legal definition of a palaeontological resource.

2)     It provides the authority for Alberta Culture to designate significant palaeontological sites as Provincial Historic Resources (e.g., the Grande Cache Dinosaur Tracksite and the Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Egg Site are Provincial Historic Resources).

3)     It requires that anyone who wants to excavate fossils must first obtain a Permit to Excavate Palaeontological Resources from Alberta Culture.

4)     It requires anyone who encounters fossils while conducting an excavation to contact Alberta Culture (via the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology) to report the discovery.

5)     It restricts the export of fossils from Alberta.

6)     It makes it unlawful to alter, mark, or damage a fossil found in Alberta.

7)     It allows Alberta Culture to require further studies or assessments if an activity (e.g. pipelines, mines, roads, etc.) is likely to impact fossils.

8)     It sets out penalties, a maximum $50,000 fine and/or one year in jail, for anyone convicted of contravening the Act.

Follow this link to see the Historical Resources Act on the Alberta Queen’s Printer’s website. 

Archaeological and Palaeontological Research Permit Regulation

The Archaeological and Palaeontological Research Permit Regulation sets out the requirements and expectations for individuals applying for a Permit to Excavate Palaeontological Resources. The main point of this regulation is that a permit to excavate for fossils can only be issued to an individual with a post-graduate degree in palaeontology, or closely related discipline.

Follow this link to see the Archaeological and Palaeontological Research Permit Regulation on the Alberta Queen’s Printer’s website.

Dispositions (Ministerial) Regulation

Unlike the Archaeological and Palaeontological Research Permit Regulation, the Dispositions (Ministerial) Regulation is directly applicable to some aspects of amateur and commercial fossil collecting in Alberta.

Perhaps one of the most important items in the Regulation is the Control List in Schedule 1. The Control List formalizes the four types of fossils that the Crown can transfer ownership (dispose) to individuals. This list applies only to fossils collected after July 5, 1978 and includes 1) ammonite shell, including all gemmological by-products of ammonite shell 2) oyster shell, 3) petrified wood and 4) fossil leaf impressions.

The Regulation provides a mechanism for the Crown to:

1)     Provide certificates of ownership to individuals with fossil collections made prior to July 5, 1978.

2)     Transfer ownership of legally collected Control List fossils.

3)     Transfer custodianship of fossils from the Crown to an individual.

Also of interest, the Regulation sets out the criteria that an individual must meet to legally collect ammonite shell in Alberta.

Find more information on the Disposition (Ministerial) Regulation on the Alberta Queen’s Printer’s website.

When companies (or anyone, for that matter) encounter fossils while excavating, the Alberta Historical Resources Act requires them to report the find to Alberta Culture via the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. It is then up to us to determine what has been found, and how to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.

Typically, once or twice a year, the Museum gets a report of big fossils found during excavation activities somewhere in Alberta. Over the past few years we have received calls about mosasaurs and plesiosaurs found in southern Alberta as well as plesiosaurs and a dinosaur in the Fort McMurray area.

As you may have seen in the news over the past few months, the Museum was involved in the recovery of a dinosaur found by a pipeline construction crew near Spirit River, Alta. At nearly the same time, a mosasaur (a marine reptile) skeleton was being excavated from the Korite ammolite mine in southern Alberta. And even more recently, we received a call about a dinosaur found by a crew digging a sewer line in Leduc, Alta. With all these discoveries, and others, I am often asked: what happens when the Royal Tyrrell Museum gets reports about big fossils found by developers?

The process begins as soon as the Resource Management Program receives a phone call or an email from a developer informing us that they have encountered a fossil. This initial contact is usually followed up by a request from us for photographs of the fossil. Once we have confirmed that the find really is a fossil, we jump into action.

Within a day or so of the initial call we send out a small team (usually one to three people) to the site to evaluate the fossil, to determine what equipment and people will be needed to extract it, and to work with the company to develop a plan that will allow us to remove the fossil as quickly, and with as little disruption, as possible.

Once the team has completed its initial assessment of the fossil and started the excavation process we send out a bigger team (usually two to four people but sometimes six or more) of technicians with all the necessary tools and materials to do the job quickly and safely. The time it takes to complete the excavation depends on the nature of the fossil (its size, the type of rock in which it is preserved, its location, etc.), the weather, and many other factors. We understand that time is money for the companies that encounter these fossils and with the help of their heavy machines we have always been able to get the fossils out of the ground and out of their way a lot faster than we would at a more traditional style excavation.

The fossils are then loaded onto a truck and transported to the Royal Tyrrell Museum where they will be safely stored until they can be prepared, studied, and then possibly be put on display.

We often hear that companies are afraid that they will get shut down if they report fossils to us, but that has never happened. We make it a priority to make sure we get in and get the fossil out as quickly as possible to minimize the impact on the company. In most cases, the company is able to continue working around us, or in another part of the excavation site while we collect the specimen. Working together we have been able to preserve some amazing aspects of Alberta’s ancient past.

-Dan Spivak, Head, Resource Management Program

When fossils were discovered at the Suncor Energy mine, employees halted work and sent photos to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Scientists flew to Fort McMurray to investigate the next day and were amazed to find the rare remains of a 110-million-year-old ankylosaur, an armoured dinosaur.

The Resource Management Program is a relatively small program at the Royal Tyrrell Museum consisting of myself,  Dan Spivak, Head of the Resource Management Program, and Jen, Resource Management Assistant, and typically one or two students during the summer. We do, however, draw upon the experience and expertise of many people at the Museum, including our curators and collections management staff.

The main goal of the Resource Management Program is to ensure the protection and preservation of Alberta’s palaeontological resources using the available legislative and policy tools (more on the fossil protection legislation of Alberta in my next blog post). The bulk of our time is spent reviewing applications for Historical Resources Act Clearance to determine if various developments (including gravel pits, mines, pipelines, well sites, roads, etc.) will likely impact fossils, and if so, recommending ways to mitigate any potential impacts.

We also maintain a map of most of the known fossil sites in the province, which we use to develop policies and databases such as the Listing of Historic Sites. We also provide this information to our curators and to palaeontological consultants to help them plan field work activities. Much of this work is done in conjunction with our colleagues in the Historic Resource Management Branch (we are all part of the Ministry of Alberta Culture).

We also work with people who want to collect fossils in Alberta. We process Permits to Excavate Palaeontological Resources applications for palaeontological consultants and researchers. We talk with many amateur fossil collectors, discussing the dos and don’ts of fossil collecting and ownership. We also work with commercial fossil collectors (mainly ammonite mining companies) to make sure that their activities are done legally and to ensure that significant fossils make it into the Provincial Collections held here at the Royal Tyrrell Museum.

The Resource Management Program is also responsible for developing and implementing protective strategies at sensitive sites, including the Hoodoos( a relatively large project that involved several Museum programs, consultants, and contractors that took three years to complete) and Devil’s Coulee Dinosaur Egg Site. The Devil’s Coulee project is ongoing and Jen will provide updates on this blog as the project progresses.

We also coordinate the Museum’s interactions with federal government programs such as Canadian Heritage and Canadian Border Service, and with other provincial and territorial governments.

There are lots of topics to write about, but if you have any questions regarding fossil legislation, and protection, or requests for future blog posts, please send me an email. I look forward to your questions and suggestions.

-Dan Spivak, Head, Resource Management Program

water in footprints

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