An Alberta man was sentenced to jail and fined for his role in stealing fossilized dinosaur footprints from a northeast B.C. protected site after pleading guilty.
Bennward Ingram, 39, of Pincher Creek, Alta., and three other men used power tools and heavy-duty hand tools to commit the crime, according to a Jan. 10 ruling at provincial court in Fort St. John.
Accomplice Austin McNolty pleaded guilty in 2021 and was sentenced to 30 days jail and a $20,000 fine.
The footprints were part of dinosaur trackways called the Six Peaks Dinosaur Track Site, just outside the Tumbler Ridge UNESCO Global Geopark, near Hudson’s Hope in the Peace region.
Vandalism of the site was reported in July 2020 and investigation revealed the removal of fossilized tracks in six areas, resulting in damage to additional tracks. Surveillance photos and witnesses reported four men driving in two vehicles and using power tools to remove individual tracks from the site over a period of at least two and a half hours.
Ingram was observed using a sledgehammer, a pry bar and other tools, court documents read.
Large slabs of fossil tracks were either removed, or were damaged by being broken up, and were possibly destroyed.
The illegal excavation stopped only when two separate groups of witnesses arrived and began observing the crime, at which point the four men packed up their equipment and left. No fossil tracks removed from the site have yet been recovered.
Part of the ancient landscape
In his ruling, Judge Darin Reeves considered the permanent impacts caused by the theft, including cultural loss for local First Nations and the impacts on scientific research.
Studies of the track site found more than 500 dinosaur footprints covering an estimated 750-square metres.
These tracks represent diverse dinosaurs from the Early Cretaceous epoch, which scientists estimated to have walked on sandy ground approximately 125-113 million years ago, following which their tracks were fossilized. For researchers, trackways can show how these ancient reptiles lived and moved, its gait and behaviour.
The dinosaur tracks include three of the major groups of dinosaurs that lived during that period.
The site is one of the largest found in Western Canada in more than a generation and is considered one of the 10 most important track sites in North America and was ranked as one of the most important in Western Canada.
Due to the damage caused during the illegal excavation the area is now far more susceptible to deterioration. Cracks or fractures have been created that will accelerate erosion of the tracks, Reeves wrote in his reasoning for the sentence.
A community impact statement from the Saulteau First Nations Treaty Rights and Environmental Protection Department noted the destruction occurred in the nation’s “backyard” and was very disturbing, causing the community to feel less safe.
Several more First Nation cultural places are nearby, the impact statement noted, with members fearful acts of vandalism could target these special spaces.
The nation also runs a Carbon Lake Lodge Restoration Project near the site, with intentions to include future eco-tours of the fossil site – a plan disrupted by the damage caused, the court documents read.
‘Otherwise positive character’
Reeves noted in his ruling that Ingram has a Grade 12 education and has no prior involvement with the courts, working as an excavator operator and sole source of support for his young family.
Reeves found Ingram didn’t appreciate the impact of his crime but expressed “deep remorse” for the damages.
When factoring his decision, Reeves considered the harm done to the trackways, which he called “significant, permanent” and ongoing. Evidence also pointed to the crime being premeditated – with the men planning and preparing for the crime with intention to take the fossils.
Letters to the court spoke to “the uncharacteristic nature” of Ingram’s offence and “his otherwise positive character.”
But Reeves emphasized the need for “general deterrence” and to impose sentences that “will give pause to others who may seek to engage in the same behaviour.”
Ingram was in turn sentenced to 25 days in jail and fined $15,000.
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