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Pleistocene Trackways Documentation Project
Eastern Idaho


Transcript PDF 57 kb

The Trackways Project

What is large, hairy, and 72,000-plus years old? Why a Wooly Mammoth, of course! In August 2010, several ancient animal tracks were discovered on a Bureau of Reclamation project site in Southeastern Idaho by vertebrate paleontologist and Reclamation volunteer, Steve Robison. The track that caught his eye (lying deep in the side of a cliff) was that of a Proboscidean, or elephant-like mammal.  

After uncovering the find and inspecting the clay layer, Robison determined that the mammoth or mastodon tracks were made somewhere between 72,000 and 100,000 years ago during the Pleistocene, or Ice Age. A Felid track was also found, belonging to a large cat, such as a Saber-Toothed Tiger.

Due to natural sloughing off of the cliff and water erosion from the reservoir, most of the tracks were lost.  Therefore, Reclamation (along with the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Forest Service) worked to uncover the remaining partial tracks and hoped that more would be discovered.

In August 2011, several more tracks were found and paleontologists were able to gather data. The large mammoth tracks could not be removed (due to residing in such soft sediment) and were therefore meticulously measured and documented. Techniques used included photogrammetry (to obtain a 3-D photographic information), old-fashioned measuring, and even making latex casts of the tracks in order to collect toe preservation. 

These prehistoric trace fossils are an extremely rare find and were unearthed in the great state of Idaho. The data that has been collected will be studied and compiled into an exhibit that will be displayed at the Idaho Museum of Natural History in Spring 2012. 

Beyond Bones – Reclamation's Cultural Resources Program

Uncovering and preserving fossil remains in the Pacific Northwest is just one aspect of the Cultural Resources Program within the Bureau of Reclamation. According to Jennifer Huang, archeologist with the Snake River Area Office, federal cultural preservation activities are driven mainly by two federal laws:

  • the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which protects human-created resources; and
  • the Paleontological Resources Protection Act (PRPA), which protects ancient biological ones.

Passed in 1966, NHPA calls on federal agencies to identify, evaluate, and protect significant cultural resources that may be affected by federal actions. This broad definition applies to federally funded or approved actions that may destroy, remove, or modify buildings, archeological sites, and places important in traditional Native American religions. 

“In Reclamation, a cultural resource could be a simple piece of stone or as complex as a dam or water delivery system,” says Huang.

Under the NHPA, federal archeologists are responsible for protecting a vast array artifacts and remains that have cultural, social, and historic significance. These include gravesites, buildings and structures, and traditional cultural properties, which are often identified through oral histories and narratives.

Protection of ancient biological resources comes under PRPA, the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act. These are resources that were created thru non-human, biological means. Paleontology is the study of the development of animals, fish, dinosaurs, birds and mammals as seen in the fossil record. By examining fossils and other traces of ancient animal behavior like tracks and burrows, scientists can uncover and examine these ancient life forms and their changes through time.

In Reclamation’s Pacific Northwest Region, four archeologists and one historian oversee the region’s cultural resources. No paleontologists are on staff. Reclamation relies on other agencies for this expertise.


Jennifer Huang
(208) 383-2257

Bureau of Reclamation
Snake River Area Office
230 Collins Road
Boise, ID 83702-4520


Last Update: April 29, 2013 9:16 AM