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Alaska river guide gets 3 years probation for illegally removing fossils

Alaska Dispatch

Prominent river tour guide and author Karen Jettmar was sentenced in federal court Friday to three years probation and a $30,000 fine after she was found guilty of conspiracy to remove fossils from Alaska public lands.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline said Jettmar’s probation bans her from all commercial activity on public lands for three years. She must also return a fossil bone she illegally collected on public lands three years ago and post a notice on her website warning that taking fossils from public lands is illegal.

More than nine months ago, a federal grand jury indicted Jettmar on charges that she helped a Pennsylvania man smuggle a 10,000-year-old mammoth tusk worth $4,000 out of Alaska and, on a separate trip, removed  a "fossil bone" from federal lands.

Under federal law, collecting the fossils of dinosaurs, mammals, sharks, fish or any other creatures with skeletons on federal land is illegal unless the collector is a qualified researcher with a permit. Fossils are broadly defined as any preserved material from, or evidence of, life forms from previous geologic ages.

Jettmar, 61, is well known in the Alaska paddling community as the author of “Alaska River Guide: Canoeing, Kayaking, and Rafting in the Last Frontier”. She is also the owner and director of Equinox Wilderness Expeditions, a company that offers guided tours in Alaska and Canada. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Cooper, who prosecuted the case, said Jettmar has operated her tour business on Alaskan rivers for about a decade.            

Prosecutors claimed that Jettmar had to know she was breaking the law. As a former national park ranger, they believe the law-enforcement training Jettmar received for that job in the 1980s would have included the law she's accused of breaking. Even had she forgotten the rules, she knew enough to include them in her Alaska river guidebook, which mentions "federal regulations concerning collection of archeological, paleontological and cultural resources," according the indictment. 

In 2007, during a guided tour on the Kokolik River in northwestern Alaska, a Virginia man, one of Jettmar’s customers, collected a pre-historic mammoth tusk and transported it to his home in the Lower 48, according to Cooper.            

"Rich in archeology and paleontology, the area escaped the last Continental Ice Age," Jettmar explained in a promotional write up of the Kokolik River trip on her company’s website in 2007. "Herds of woolly mammoth, saber-toothed tigers, and horses roamed these lands when much of the rest of North America lay beneath glaciers. Today, we find evidence of their existence in eroding cut banks, along with archeological evidence of hunters of the Arctic Small Tool Tradition."

The illegally removed tusk was later recovered using a search warrant. An agent of the Bureau of Land Management traveled on another Jettmar tour in 2009 and observed Jettmar removing a smaller fossil bone from the area, too.           

At sentencing, Jettmar acknowledged her actions were illegal and vowed not to repeat them.