Future of B.C.'s largest dinosaur fossil collection in jeopardy as funding disagreement closes museum

A museum in northeastern B.C. that houses the province's largest collection of dinosaur fossils has closed and its future is in question after failing to receive funding needed to stay operational.

Operations 'idled'; staff laid off after local government denies $200,000 funding request

The Peace River Palaeontology Research Centre and museum houses the largest dinosaur fossil collection in British Columbia. (Tumbler Ridge Museum Foundation)

A museum in northeastern B.C. that houses the province's largest collection of dinosaur fossils has closed and its future is in question after being denied the funding needed to stay operational.

On March 5, Tumbler Ridge district council voted against a $200,000 funding request for the Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre and Dinosaur Discovery Gallery, prompting the board that manages the museum to announce its temporary closure and send layoff notices to all five staff members.

The society and museum were created following the discovery of dinosaur tracks in a local creek in 2000.

Since then, paleontologists and amateur fossil hunters have found hundreds of bones and footprints belonging to dinosaurs that once roamed what is now British Columbia.

Tumbler Ridge has been a hotbed for dinosaur fossils — so much so that they turned an abandoned elementary school into a paleontology centre. 3:26

Among the discoveries credited to the centre: the northernmost prints of brontosaurus; the only Tyrannosaur trackway in the world; the only known footprints of the carnivorous Therizinosaur; and the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in the province. 

The museum and its discoveries were also the centrepiece of the community's successful bid to be recognized by UNESCO as a global "geopark" — an area of international geological significance. It is the second geopark in Canada and the first in western North America. 

However, it is the creation of that geopark and a society to manage it that has caused the museum's current funding woes.

Overlapping organizations?

At a meeting held March 5, councillors with the District of Tumbler Ridge expressed concern that they were funding both the geopark and the museum, and questioned whether the two groups were overlapping in their work

"There's no doubt that the District supports both of these organizations," Coun. Joanne Kirby said. "But we've got to figure out where the money goes a little bit more."

A dinosaur footprint is shown near Williston Lake, B.C., in this undated handout photo. (HO-Rich McCrea/The Canadian Press)

Coun. Will Howe said he was not satisfied with information he'd received from the museum board explaining how municipal funding was used, which is why he voted against approval of the requested $200,000 grant.

In an interview with CBC, Mayor Don McPherson said council wants the museum foundation and geopark society to reach an agreement about how they will work more closely together before the District grants them more money.

He also said he was optimistic an agreement would be reached. 

This [museum] has brought so much to Tumbler Ridge and to the region, and we're every year having to fight for it.- Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre curator Rich McCrae

"This is a big part of our town," he said. "I have a lot of faith in the people that are involved."

​Museum foundation vice-president Jerrilyn Schembri said her board has approved a memorandum of understanding negotiated with the geopark society, and were waiting for approval from that group's board.

She said in the meantime, the society's operations had 'idled' in order to keep the collection secure through the end of 2018.

Stable funding needed

Peace Region Palaeontology Research Centre curator Rich McCrae warned that without a better funding model in place, the museum's collection is in constant jeopardy.

"We're in this position every year of having to justify our operation," he said. "This [museum] has brought so much to Tumbler Ridge and to the region, and we're every year having to fight for it."

McCrae said it was frustrating that the province has never provided operational funding, but without stable municipal support it is unlikely other levels of government would get involved.

He also said if the museum were to shut down, he wasn't sure its collection could stay in British Columbia.

"There's no other museum [in B.C.] that can take this on," he said. "It's a big worry."

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George.