Feds Target Fossil Poachers

Allosaurus skeleton FBI seal
Surrounded by towering Utah bedrock, miles from the nearest real road, the FBI is tracking a criminal.

The FBI is here to collect evidence of a crime. It could be a murder scene, it could be a bombing, but in this case, as CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes reports, the victim is more than 150-million-years-old: a dinosaur whose skeleton was stolen for profit.

"We're not just looking for bones, we're looking for pop cans, beer cans," says FBI agent Gib Wilson.

Those clues could lead to the poachers who stole the bones. Fossil theft is a growing criminal industry fueled by affluent collectors and amateur poachers who dig on government land, making it a federal offense

Bureau of Land Management paleontologist Laurie Bryant says poachers destroy the archeological record when they steal bones from a site.

"I find it heartbreaking," she says. "The source of that bone may have been a complete dinosaur skeleton that was broken up in little chunks (and) sold for a few dollars a piece so that someone could have a souvenir."

It was in a remote Utah high desert where the dinosaur team solved it's biggest case, digging up evidence that led to a local poacher and ultimately the Pennsylvania fossil dealer who hired him.

The FBI went all the way to Japan to track an Allosaurus skeleton sold for $400,000 to a museum. They still have the evidence that closed the case: a Pepsi can used as a hammer.

"It's great evidence," says Dan Roberts, of the FBI. "A paleontologist would never use a tool like this."

But a poacher would. And collectors are willing to pay hundreds even thousands of dollars on the Internet for a fragment of a dinosaur bone or millions for an entire skeleton.

"The loss of even a single skeleton is a dramatic loss to science and to the public," says Dr. Scott Sampson, of the Utah Museum of Natural History.

That's why Congress has proposed stiffer penalties for poachers and the FBI is out in this desolate desert tracking down criminals before they make dinosaur history extinct.