By Lorne Eckersley with notes from Aaron Orlando/Black Press
Retired Kootenay-Columbia MP Jim Abbott was in Revelstoke on August 4 pitching a new project he’s become involved with after leaving politics earlier this year. He stopped by the Times Review office and later presented to the Revelstoke Rotary Club about a new palaeontology project in the East Kootenay.
He is helping a couple of residents there research and promote their enormous find of ancient fossils in the Bull River area.
“I wanted to help Chris Jenkins get this find out to the public,” he said. “While I have the greatest respect for our public service workers I wanted to make sure that these fossil finds didn’t end up in the control of government — that tends to tie things up forever.”
Instead, Abbott worked to connect Jenkins and his fellow fossil finder, Chris New, with the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation and Columbia Basin Trust. The Burgess Shale Formation is one of the world’s largest fossil deposits. Located in Yoho National Park near Field, the deposits were discovered in 1909 by palaeontologist Charles Walcott. Because they are located within a national park, their access is strictly controlled.
Jenkins explained details in a telephone interview. An avid outdoorsman, about 10 years ago he got a call from a friend, New, who told him that he had found a clue on the Internet suggesting that trilobite fossil deposits might be found in the Bull River area east of Cranbrook.
“Right off the bat we found one — a spectacular site,” Jenkins recalled. “It was huge, with every layer of shale containing hundreds of thousands or even millions of fossils — there are all sorts of species, many of which have never been seen before.”
Jenkins and New continued their explorations over the years without making their findings public. They wanted to locate all the fossil deposits before staking mineral claims to them all (Jenkins said there are two remote locations he still has to check), ensuring they could be kept in one package for whatever organization took control.
A self-taught geological explorer, Jenkins said making the discoveries has been a remarkable experience.
“It’s more like treasure hunting than trilobite hunting,” he said. “When we found the first distinctive landform it was like I could have heard church music in the background.”
Jenkins said he has become adept at finding deposits by looking at the tops of mountains.
“I carry bear spray and do a lot of hiking,” he said. “The exciting part is that I know when I find one trilobite I’ve probably found trillions.”
Trilobites, he said, are the oldest specifies of life whose evidence remains with us. They were the first life form with a hard shell, which allowed their shapes to be preserved in layers in what once were ocean beds. Remnants of the Middle Cambrian period of the Paleozoic era, these trilobites are estimated to be about 505 million years old.
After Walcott discovered the Burgess Shale deposits, he returned to the quarry for the next 15 years, amassing more than 65,000 different specimens. Jenkins said the Bull River explorations continue to reveal new specimens.
With the help of Columbia Basin Trust and the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation, Jenkins’ team has set up a trilobite research project and display at Fort Steele for the summer. Visitors get a once in a lifetime opportunity to make their own discoveries, breaking apart soft shale strata to reveal fossils inside.
“We had a six-year-old boy find the only one on Earth of one species,” he said. “We expect to discover other species over the summer. One layer in these formations can contain 40,000-50,000 different species.”
Visitors to the Fort Steele research project “generally find four or five fossils and they are always excited — just like I still am,” he said. “And they get to keep one of their fossils.”
Abbott also believes there are educational opportunities in the find. He’s hoping to partner with school districts near the site to develop educational field trips for students, and hopes one day to expand it beyond to possibly include Calgary school children. He also feels there are ample opportunities for university-level research initiatives. “The potential science that can come out of these trilobite sites is so big I can’t describe it,” he said. “[It’s also] a scientific project that ordinary citizens can get their hands on.”