BLM Recovers Petroglyphs Stolen From Bishop's Tablelands

posted by dpm on 02/04/2013


Long before crashpads and sticky rubber shoes, Native Americans were attracted to the same rocky outcrops that climbers are today. If you've climbed at either of America's two most popular bouldering areas, Hueco Tanks or Bishop, you've likely seen evidence of their passing in the form of rock art known as petroglyphs (carved into rock) or pictographs (painted on the rock).

In fact, you can't take a trip to Hueco Tanks without watching a short educational video that discusses the archeological importance of the pictographs found throughout the park. Some of the oldest pictographs in America are found at Hueco Tanks, an area that for thousands of years was home to many different tribes of Native Americans. While modern climbers are attracted to the huecos that make excellent and unique scooped handholds, native people were attracted to the same huecos because of their ability to hold water in the otherwise arid landscape. Protecting the unique pictographs that the natives left is one of the main reasons that the Park enacted restrictions to minimize the impacts that boulderers could have on them.  

Beautiful petroglyphs on Sky Rock, Bishop, California. Photo: Phillip Colla/

Similar evidence of native people can be found scattered throughout Bishop California's volcanic tablelands, home to the popular Happies and Sads bouldering areas. A short walk away from some of America's best bouldering, it's possible to find extravagant petroglyphs carved into the dark patina of the stone. As a user group overall, climbers recognize the importance and significance of these rare glimpses into the past and are invested in protecting them by not climbing near them.

In mid-November of last year, I was appalled to read news of an outrageous act of vandalism in Bishop's Tablelands. Using ladders, drills, and generator-powered saws, thieves actually cut some petroglyphs out of the rock and stole them. According to the LA Times, the Bureau of Land Management reported that at least four petroglyphs were stolen and many more were damaged during what they called, "the worst act of vandalism (they'd) ever seen."

Raymond Andrews, tribal historic preservation officer of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, inspects the damage at the vandalism site. Photo:

The BLM immediately offered a reward of $1000 for information leading to the arrest of the individuals involved. The Bishop Paiutes pitched in another $1000 dollars toward the reward money. In addition, a climber started a Facebook campaign and Indiegogo page with the mission:  "Let's help increase the "Reward to Catch and Prosecute the Bishop Petroglyph Thieves" and protect the petroglyphs from future damage." They set a target goal of $1200 and then exceeded their goal, raising a total of $1686. Knowing immediately that the thieves may not be caught, the fund gave donors the option to choose where their donation would go in that event: interpretive programs, camera surveillance of the site, stewardship training, or the Access Fund in conjunction with the Paiute Tribe's Historic Preservation division.

Reward sign showing one of the damaged petroglyphs. Photo:

In light of the tragic vandalism to the rock and art that is priceless to both the natives and climbers, it was refreshing to see the community band together in an effort to prevent this from happening again.

On February 1, the BLM announced that they had received an anonymous tip and the petroglyphs were recovered. From their press release:  "Petroglyph panels taken from a major rock art site north of Bishop have been recovered. Suspects(s) have not been identified and BLM is continuing its investigation, so cannot release further details at this time. Reward funds totaling $9,000 have been donated or pledged for information leading to the conviction of the responsible party(ies)."

While getting the petroglyphs back is an awesome development in this story, irreparable damage has been done. There is no word yet on what the BLM and the Paiute tribe will decide to do with the damaged rock art.

Anybody with information about the theft is asked to contact BLM law enforcement at (760) 937-0301 or (760) 937-0657. The suspect(s) may have experience and access to masonry cutting tools. If you're climbing in Bishop, keep your eyes peeled.