Ken Smouse of Ione was just hunting for rocks in a creek bed in the spring of 2001 when he came across what looked like a big piece of wood. When he looked closer, he realized he’d found something much more exciting: a fossilized woolly mammoth tusk. A state archaeologist, after looking at the soil strata surrounding the find, estimated the age at between 500,000 and 1 million years old. But the tusk was not the first found in the area. Woolly mammoth remains also have been excavated from sites near Lexington, Heppner, Prineville and on the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Heppner’s Bob Jepsen found a large molar in a canyon on the ranch of Noel Dobyn in 1976. “I can pretty near always find teeth, bones or other small pieces in pretty near any canyon,” Jepsen said in a July 1, 2001, article in the East Oregonian. “I’m a great one to keep my eyes open.”
Stan Prowant was the geology instructor at Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton when Smouse’s find was made. He already had a three-foot tusk portion in his lab from an earlier excavation in Lexington in the winter of 2000. The tusk was awaiting a resin-type plastic coating that would allow Prowant and his students to study the fossil without it falling apart. Smouse’s tusk was encased in cement where it was found until Prowant could remove it without damage.
Woolly mammoths roamed Eastern Oregon during the Pleistocene Epoch, one of the Ice Ages, when the climate here was much colder. One of four types of mammoth (which also included ancestral, Columbian and mastodont), the woolly mammoth was the smallest and fed on low tundra vegetation, up to 200 pounds a day. There are several theories as to why the mammoths died out, but one reason may have been climate change — as the Earth warmed up and the ice melted, the mammoths could no longer find their preferred food.
A fossilized palm leaf sits on the front porch of the Heppner Ranger District office, a 50-million-year-old fossil of a time when Eastern Oregon had a climate more like Hawaii. The fossil was found on Coal Mine Hill, just outside of Cutsforth Park, in the Blue Mountains near Heppner. Steve Carlson, a geology instructor at Portland State University at the time, said it’s only a matter of time before a dinosaur is found in the area, “because there are rocks that go back to the Jurassic age. With erosion, we’ll eventually find one.”