Mammoth bones are being unearthed near Tri-Cities. You can take a tour of the dig

Sticking out of the dirt just south of Kennewick is what appears to be a large vertebrae, possibly two feet long, of a mammoth.

It’s one of about a dozen partially exposed bones at the Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site, with most showing too little surface area for diggers to identify yet.

The vertebrae will likely be unearthed in the current dig season and possibly some of the other “mystery” bones will be revealed, said Gary Kleinknecht, a retired Kamiakin High teacher and the volunteer who serves as the education director for the project.

This will be the ninth season of digging at the site, with the public following the progress and learning about mammoths and the Ice Age floods that may have deposited the mammoth’s carcass near the Tri-Cities.

field trip
March 19, 2018 - Students visit the Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site, where the bones of a mammoth that lived about 17,500 years ago are being unearthed. Courtesy Pasco School District

Last spring 2,000 students visited the dig site and Kleinknecht suspects that this year’s field trips and youth group tours may top that.

The student trips are so popular that some show up with more adult volunteers than kids, he said.

Register for tours

But you don’t have to volunteer for a field trip to see the site.

You can register for public tours planned July 20, Aug. 17, Sept. 21 and Oct. 12.

However, the tours are expected to fill quickly when online registration for the summer and fall tours opens May 20 at www.coyotecanyonmammothsite.org.

Spring tours are already filled, despite no publicity.

Participants will be given more information when they register, including the directions to the dig site, which is at an undisclosed location to prevent vandalism.

Finding mammoth bones in Washington left from the Ice Age floods is not unusual. But they are usually found when construction excavation is being done and there’s not time to study them thoroughly.

This dig site is different.

The land was donated for research and education. The site is being excavated to exacting standards that modern paleontology and archaeology require to find out as much as possible — not only about the mammoth but the times it lived in and the Ice Age floods that may have swept up the animal.

Mammoth bones were first discovered at the Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site south of Kennewick in 1999 during quarrying work. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Buckets of dirt are carefully sifted to collect other animal bones, what’s left of insects and plant seeds to capture data to show how plants and animals changed over time, reflecting different environmental and climate conditions.

Mystery of mammoth’s death

“The general goal is a biological study,” Kleinknecht said. “As long as we continue to find new species we will keep digging.”

There’s also a crime to solve — the mystery of the mammoth’s death, Kleinknecht said.

His bones were found in ice age flood sediment and among granite rocks, called erratics, that likely floated in on icebergs.

Floods swept across Eastern Washington between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago, with flood water backing up as it hit the narrow Wallula Gap to cover what is now the Tri-Cities.

volunteer with rib
Neil Mara, a volunteer, holds a drawer that has a mammoth rib that was found at the excavating site at Coyote Canyon Mammoth. File Tri-City Herald

The dig site is at an elevation of about 1,060 feet, and data collected at the project there shows that the floods may have been deep enough to reach that area about seven times.

The high water mark for ice age floods in the Tri-Cities area is at an elevation of about 1,250 feet. In comparison, the McNary pool of the Columbia River is at an elevation of about 340 feet.

The best guess now is that the carcass of the Coyote Canyon mammoth floated in on the flood waters and was left on a hillside as waters receded.

Carbon dating shows the bones are about 17,450 years old.

Mammoth age and gender

Likely the animal drowned.

That’s the hypothesis now, but more information could sway thinking.

Researchers are estimating the mammoth was about 40 years old, or middle-aged, based in part by study of its teeth. Mammoths have six sets of four teeth in their lifetimes and this one had its final set, which usually grew in at about age 30.

The teeth grow forward and some of the teeth of this animal were still pristine, indicating they had not been completely exposed yet.

detail shot
The bones of a mammoth that lived 17,500 years ago are being slowly and carefully excavated by volunteers from a site near Kennewick. File Tri-City Herald

Mammoth typically live to about age 60. With no evidence of disease and limited predators for an animal the size of a mammoth, drowning in the flood waters seems a likely possibility, Kleinknecht said.

Researchers also suspect the mammoth was a male, based on its bone growth plates, which take longer to fuse in a male. One front leg growth plate was unfused.

The gender won’t be known definitively unless a pelvis is uncovered.

Among the largest finds so far are the shoulder blade and two upper front leg bones, plus multiple ribs and vertebrae and some smaller foot and tail bones.

Help with the dig

Volunteers are still hoping to find more leg bones, the pelvis, the cranium, tusks and more of the ribs and vertebrae.

Some bones of the mammoth went to a private collection between the discovery of bones in 2000 and the establishment of the MCBONES Research Center Foundation of the Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site in 2008.

Digging at the site got off to a late start in mid April this spring because of the snowy winter.

More volunteers are needed, with Kleinknecht hoping for some returning volunteers and also new volunteers. New volunteers typically start out washing sediment and supporting diggers and eventually may be trained on more technical skills.

Volunteers are asked to commit to a regular schedule of two to four days a month. Digging is usually done only on two weekends of the month for a total of four days.

“If you want to tell your grandkids you worked on a mammoth dig, come on out,” Kleinknecht said.

For more information about volunteering, call Kleinknecht at 509-627-1654.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.