CASPER — Until about three years ago, the examination of burial sites or historic human remains was an informal effort between a biological anthropologist from the University of Wyoming, the state archaeologist and volunteers.
Then in 2019, state lawmakers passed Senate File 78, which put into law requirements concerning the discovery of human remains on state or private land. It placed almost all of the responsibility on the state archaeologist, Spencer Pelton.
Since then, the law has several times guided the handling of burial sites and remains. But there’s an issue, department officials told the Joint Appropriations Committee last week. The biological anthropologist is retiring and the examination of human remains is taking over Pelton’s time.
And so the state parks department is seeking nearly $100,000 for a biological anthropologist to help Pelton out. Gov. Mark Gordon did not include this money in his budget recommendations. But state lawmakers will have their say on whether to pay for the position.
In the time since the bill was enacted, Pelton has relied on volunteers — local historians and graduate students at the University of Wyoming — to help him with the work, a process that can take “three to four months of continuous work” each time a discovery is made.
“It quickly monopolized most of my time,” Pelton said. “It’s a big job that has to be dealt with in a pretty sensitive way.”
This was not the intention of the sponsors of the 2019 legislation, however.
“We weren’t adding new duties,” said Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas. “We were just defining what they are.”
When the bill was originally passed, a monetary allocation was not part of the conversation, Boner added.
“An appropriation was never even a discussion,” he said.
Not mentioning the money was partly a strategic move at the time the bill was being considered.
“The rationale at the time was: we really needed to get something protecting human remains in place and attaching some funding source to that decreased the chances,” Pelton said.
This strategy paid off — the bill passed all major votes unanimously.
Since the start of 2020, four discoveries of human remains have required the work of the state archaeologist.
In April 2020, utility workers unearthed the bones of a small child in the backyard of a Cheyenne residence.
“With help from local historians, the State Archaeologist determined the bones were associated with Cheyenne’s ‘Old City Cemetery’, a burial place used between 1867 and 1875 by early residents and later built on top of by expansion of the city in the early 20th century,” the state parks department said in a press release. “The remains are intended for reburial in Cheyenne’s Lakeview cemetery.”
In that same month, dispersed human remains were found in a lot that was being developed in Glenrock. Following “extensive excavation, historical research, and intensive laboratory analysis,” the remains were found to be a U.S. military cavalryman who died at an Oregon Trail stop called Deer Creek Station in 1865.
Those bones are set for reburial at a location that has yet to be decided.
The state archaeologist consults with coroners, land owners and Native American tribes to determine what happens next. If the remains are determined to be Native American, the tribal historic preservation offices are called to weigh in — and possibly take over the process.
Sara Needles, the state historic preservation officer, told the Joint Appropriations Committee that she was not sure that they’d be able to find someone in Wyoming to contract for the work and may need to look outside of the state. The cost of doing so is still undetermined.
For the state parks department, there may have been a glimmer of hope during Thursday’s committee meeting that the money would come through.
“We’re requiring you to do this, and we need to give you the tools to do it,” said Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, a member of the committee.
Even if Pelton and his colleagues are not granted the budgetary amendment, he plans to maintain good work.
“Throughout this process, it’s important to maintain reverence for the deceased and any potential descendants,” he said.