Historians Say Woolly Mammoth Was Probably Not Found On Plum Island


The discovery of the remains of a woolly mammoth on Plum Island, which was described in a late-19th-century article, most likely happened in Massachusetts, according to the Southold Historical Society.

This month the possibility of such a find on the Plum Island in New York stirred up much excitement among environmentalists and lawmakers. The discovery was further reason, they said, to stop the federal government’s planned sale of the island, or at least spur deeper research. But officials from the Southold Historical Society said last week that the find probably took place on an island by the same name in Massachusetts.

Despite the doubt cast on the discovery, environmentalists are still pushing for more in-depth study. The General Services Administration, the government agency that prepared an environmental impact statement over two years in preparation for a sale of the island, said this week that it has addressed environmental concerns and that the sale is still slated to proceed, although not in the immediate future.

In 2009 Congress voted to eventually close the island’s aging Plum Island Animal Disease Center, where scientists research animal diseases and develop methods to stop the spread of disease and build a new $1 billion facility in Kansas, with plans to sell 840-acre Plum Island to the highest private bidder. In preparation, the federal government commissioned the GSA to conduct the environmental impact statement.

When Robert DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, which opposes the island’s private sale for development, came across a curious citation last summer in the study about a discovery of a mammoth, he said he asked the GSA to look into its source. When the final environmental impact statement was released this June, the citation had not been expanded upon, he said. So he contacted the media.

As a result, The Suffolk Times first published a story confirming the woolly mammoth discovery with the GSA, which cited an 1879 article from The Long Islander newspaper. The article reported that the mammoth had been found beneath what had been a 50-foot-high and 150-foot-long sand dune. According to the account, the dune was eroded away, revealing a skull and more than 7 feet of backbone. The GSA said it has no record of what became of the skeleton.

Geoffrey Fleming, director of the Southold Historical Society, said that when he read the account, there were several red flags that told him the discovery wasn’t on Plum Island, New York.

“From the first line about there being a lifesaving station—that never existed,” he said, explaining that the historical society is writing a book about the history of Plum Island. “There was a station that was build on Plum Island in Newburyport, Massachusetts.”

He also pointed to an area called “Brothers Beach” where the mammoth was supposed to be found, and said that there is not such a place on the New York island, but that there is one on the Massachusetts island.

“It seems The Long Islander grabbed the story and neglected to say ‘Massachusetts,’” Mr. Fleming said. He added that while there could be some prehistoric treasures on New York’s Plum Island, he hasn’t come across any mention of such findings during his research.

Mr. DeLuca said that he was curious why a Long Island paper would cover Massachusetts news, and that he plans to keep looking into it.

“The most compelling information that I think would settle this dispute would be to find out just which Plum Island had a place called Brothers Beach, which the story describes as a fairly well recognized feature known to mariners for navigation,” he said. “I think if we can find an old map with that information we will be much closer to the most informed conclusion.”

Mr. DeLuca added that the GSA should have been looking into this from the get-go.

“Whatever reality is, and I certainly respect the good work and efforts of the historical society, this matter should have been fully addressed by the GSA and not left to the speculation of all the rest of us to try and figure out what was or wasn’t there,” Mr. DeLuca said. “That is the definition of a poorly prepared impact statement.”

Patrick Sclafani, the public affairs officer for the GSA, said its document “takes into account hundreds of comments from the public and analyzes the potential impacts of the sale of Plum Island on human health and the environment.

“If the island is sold as contemplated in current law, state and local regulatory agencies will have the authority to conduct additional reviews and implement zoning and conservation measures to oversee development on the island,” he said.

Mr. Sclafani said the GSA’s impact statement is meant to be used as a tool by Southold Town, which will have jurisdiction over the island when it is privately sold and when planning the future of the island. He said the government will continue to ensure all environmental concerns are reviewed and considered.

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