With Help from IMLS Tate Geological Museum Helps Keep Fossil Treasures "At Home" in Wyoming
In March 2006, backhoe operator Dee Zimmerscheid uncovered huge bones as he prepared an oil well site on the Allemand Ranch outside Glenrock, Wyoming. Given Wyoming’s exceptional fossil history, Dee and site supervisor Bill Allen realized the find could be significant. They contacted the landowners, who brought in the Tate Geological Museum’s curator, Dr. Kent Sundell. Dr. Sundell identified the remains as mammoth bones. The oil companies involved moved the well to allow excavation and the landowners generously donated the skeleton to the museum. The mammoth was named Dee, in honor of his discoverer, Mr. Zimmerscheid.
The museum soon realized the mammoth was exceptionally complete, unusually large, and remarkably old. About 14 feet high at the shoulder, Dee is the largest Columbian mammoth mounted in North America. Most mammoths found are young to middle-aged, while Dee is geriatric. But preserving the remains and developing an exhibit around the huge treasure required major funding and enormous volunteer support.
In 2009, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) awarded the Tate Geological Museum a grant to develop a major Ice Age exhibit and an associated K-14 educational program. IMLS funding, along with publicity on the remarkable specimen, helped the museum galvanize community interest and involvement. People across the state quickly developed a sense of pride and ownership for Dee.
Donations poured in, from children’s pennies and nickels to two $100,000 business donations to fund skeletal reconstruction. The Natrona County Recreation Joint Powers Board grant helped the Tate Geological Museum hire an Education Specialist to develop K-14 materials. The local Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) funded a weather station exhibit. The community "adopted" 300 mammoth bones, donating $2.00 to $10,000.00 per bone. The museum sponsored a Mammoth Ball fundraiser, sold Dee-themed apparel and statues, and published an imaginative educational children’s book, Dee and the Mammoth, written and illustrated by a well-known Wyoming artist.
The community also provided abundant volunteer labor. About 1,000 Casper College staff, students, and volunteers completed an arduous multiyear excavation, primarily through hand digging. The Tate’s prep lab cleaned, prepared, and preserved the bones, also with volunteer support. Thanks to community funding, the Black Hills Institute of Geologic Research reconstructed and mounted the mammoth for display.
A Mammoth Educational Exhibit
IMLS support let the Tate Geological Museum hire an Exhibit Specialist to develop a master plan for the Ice Age exhibits. Dee was installed in March 2010 as the centerpiece of a diorama exhibit that includes eight learning centers with interactive and hands-on activities and information on weather/climate, glacial geomorphology, evolution, Ice Age ecology, and the college’s partnership with the oil industry.
Through fall 2012, nearly 6,000 children visited the exhibit during school enrichment programs, and 237 participated in field trips or prep lab experiences. General museum attendance soared, tripling to 20,000 visitors the year the exhibit opened, and averaging 18,000 annually since. The museum shared information through more than 50 publications, numerous media interviews, educational outreach activities, conference presentations, website content, and a Facebook page for Dee. National and international interest and visitors have followed.
A Model for Keeping Wyoming’s Fossils "Home"
The exhibit is extremely valuable as an educational forum. Yet Dee’s most significant impact is increasing public awareness of the value of fossils. Wyoming has long been recognized as an exceptional fossil locale. Since the 1800s, thousands of significant Wyoming fossils have gone to museums, researchers, and private collections across the nation and around the world. Thanks to Dee, residents understand the importance of retaining new fossil finds in Wyoming, where learners and researchers can explore the interrelationships of fossils, local geology and ecology, and the early history of the region.
Excavating and preserving Dee taught the museum how to work effectively with landowners and large businesses. This experience helped the museum negotiate with local landowners to recover a fossil Tyrannosaurus rex found in 2011 – one of only 50 ever discovered, and among the most complete. Lee Rex, named for the excavation site’s landowner, will eventually join Dee as a new exhibit. The museum is establishing important agreements for fossil collection across the state. Most recently, it gained exclusive rights to explore for fossils in the Como Bluff region, famed for major dinosaur discoveries, as well as numerous mammal, amphibian, and fish fossils. Thanks to Dee, learners and researchers will be able to visit and learn from countless new fossil finds, within the context of their geological and historical settings.