The petroglyphs are sacred to the Paiute tribe who live nearby. The carvings represent a wide range of images, from recognizable forms such as hunters, sheep, deer, and lizards, to geometric designs and symbols. The Paiute believe that the etchings connect them to their ancestors.
The area is open to tourists, but the area is periodically closed so that the Paiute people can conduct ceremonies and rituals.
Local tribal members and archaeologists alike have been left reeling in the wake of the theft. Greg Haverstock, an archaeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Bishop, California called the theft "the worst example of vandalism in my career in my field office." The Bureau oversees the 750,000 acres of public land on which the carvings rest.
Raymond Andres, a Paiute who serves as the tribal historical preservation officer for the Bishop area, explained that the tribe view the images as messages left by ancestors, and that people go to pray and seek guidance at the sacred stone sites. "We still use this sacred place as a kind of church to educate tribal members and children about our historical and spiritual connections... so our tribal elders are appalled by what happened here."
The value of the carvings are estimated to be within the $500-$1500 range per piece, but even if the drawings are recovered, there is no way to repair the damage to the site. The Bureau is offering a $1000 reward for information leading to arrest. A first-time felony conviction for damaging or removing petroglyphs can carry a one-year prison sentence and a $20,000 fine.
Sources: Daily Mail, NBC News