May 22, 2000 12:00 PM

Swooping over southern Wyoming in his single-engine Cessna, Sgt. Steve Rogers spots something suspicious. “It looks like we have fresh tracks here,” he says, pointing to thick tire slashes in the dusting of snow. The area, Rogers explains, is known to contain large numbers of fossilized turtles—60 million years old, worth up to $10,000 apiece and illegal to remove from public land. Minutes later he spies the possible source of the tracks. There’s a red pickup with a man outside, digging with a shovel. As Rogers dives down to investigate, the man jumps into the truck and screeches off—too late. Rogers already has his number. “I’ll check his license plate,” he says, “and find out who he is.”

Score another one for America’s foremost fossil cop. Since 1993, Rogers has arrested more than 100 “fossil poachers,” derailing schemes to sell eons-old remains for big bucks on the black market. As head of Operation Rock Fish—a multiagency task force drawing on resources including those of the FBI, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Guard—he has helped recover $7 million in stolen fossils, among them a $1.8 million alligator skeleton and rare dinosaur eggs that are invaluable to scientists. “People think fossils are just rocks,” says Rogers, 50, “but diamonds are just rocks.”

There was a time when Rogers himself, a tall and rangy Vietnam veteran and former undercover narcotics detective in his native Utah, might have scoffed at the notion of fossil rustlers. “When he joined the Lincoln County, Wyo., sheriff’s department 21 years ago, much of his job consisted of such high-testosterone activities as stopping fights between drunken oil-field workers. But in 1991, during a routine air patrol of the high desert surrounding his base in the small town of Kemmerer, he noticed strange ditches as long as 10 miles. It looked like “a bombing range,” he says. “We thought they were dumping toxic waste.” A closer look revealed another sort of covert activity: poachers trying to strip the fossil-rich region of treasure.

“The first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Is that illegal?’ ” Rogers recalls. He quickly learned that it’s a crime to remove fossils from federal soil (though quarrying them on your own land or on state land, with special permits, is allowed). He also discovered that far from being “mom-and-pop rock collectors,” more than 90 percent of fossil theft suspects are already felons, 80 percent with drug charges and 75 percent with weapons charges. In 1999, for example, New Orleans police busted a poacher trying to swap a triceratops skull for $60,000 in cocaine. Says Rogers: “I was just amazed when I got into this.”

Despite the stakes, Wyoming police could do little about fossil poaching before Rogers arrived. “[People could] go out and help themselves,” says Bureau of Land Management ranger Terry Sauer. Before the late ’80s, no rangers patrolled the region. Now, a single BLM ranger covers almost 3 million acres—an area nearly the size of Connecticut—while Rogers looks for poachers by plane. “In one hour in an aircraft,” says Sauer, “you can cover what takes at least a week on the ground.”

On his current beat, Rogers regularly flies over a 4,500-sq.-mi. area. He goes up two to four times a week, sometimes at night, when he uses thermal-imaging equipment to spot poachers in action. Occasionally he catches them red-handed, but usually the hunt requires more detective work. Rogers often goes undercover at gem-and-mineral shows, posing as a shady dealer and wearing a hidden camera. “This is the only law enforcement operation like this I know of,” says Pat Leiggi, an administrator at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont. “I can’t believe what they’re forced to do out there.”

Since starting Operation Rock Fish, Rogers has received dozens of threatening calls. The house he shares with his wife, Jeannie, 52, a teacher, was broken into. (The couple have three grown children apiece from previous marriages.) Their two cats were left on the doorstep with broken necks. And Rogers has even seen his face on a $40,000 Wanted poster in two fossil shops. “Forty thousand? Is that all I’m worth?” he cracks as Jeannie plays along. “I’m holding out for $50,000,” she says.

Rogers gets serious, though, when the topic turns back to fossils. In Wyoming fossil theft can lead to 10 years in prison or a $10,000 fine, but he advocates stricter federal poaching laws, as many of his arrests wind up being prosecuted on charges other than fossil theft. “This is a nonreplenishable resource we’ll never get back,” Rogers says. “You can’t put fossils into captivity to breed and make more.”

Russell Scott Smith

Leslie Berestein in Kemmerer

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