So it wasn't aliens that removed Utah's mysterious monolith, after all.
Human beings were responsible for removing that 10-foot metal monolith, which garnered international attention after it was discovered Nov. 18 embedded in Utah's remote Red Rock Country and went viral before vanishing without a trace over the weekend.
Days after the structure disappeared, travel photographer Ross Bernards revealed he was on site when four unidentified men showed up to remove the now-world-famous monolith. Bernards' friend, Mike Newlands, was also witness to the removal. A few days later, he spoke with one of the men responsible for the removal who reached out asking for the photos Newlands took of them carrying the monolith away.
"They took it away for a few reasons," Newlands told USA TODAY on Tuesday. "It’s litter – public lands are to be respected, and this was out of place, in a pristine and sensitive environment."
Plus, the monolith was in a secluded area of the desert, only accessible through a 4-by-4 dirt road with no designated parking area. It had become a major attraction and "with the amount of people who are not familiar with desert landscapes, the damage to the land from all the vehicles and people was going to be disastrous," he added, noting the group returned to the location the next morning to find dozens of cars and a plane.
Bernards attributed the popularity of the monolith in part to the coronavirus pandemic keeping people at home and bored but also to the obvious shock factor. It was "pretty unique and random for something like this to just pop up in the desert," he wrote in an email to USA TODAY.
He, Newlands and two of their friends were visiting the desert on Friday to take photos, snapping some breathtaking shots of the monolith, set against the starry midnight blue sky. While taking a break just before 9 p.m., they began to hear voices nearing their spot, Bernards recalled in an Instagram post Monday.
Four men approached the monolith, and the photographer and his group contemplated leaving "so they could enjoy it for themselves like we did," Bernards wrote.
“You better have got your pictures," he recalled one man saying, before he pushed the monolith, causing it to lean forward. Another quipped: "This is why you don't leave trash in the desert."
All four of them began to push, and the monolith nearly landed on its side before they decided to push it back. It was at that point, Bernards wrote, that the structure "popped out and landed on the ground with a loud bang."
"They quickly broke it apart and as they were carrying to the wheelbarrow that they had brought one of them looked back at us all and said 'Leave no trace,'" he added, referencing a popular mantra urging people not to harm the spaces they visit in nature.
True to the "leave no trace" motto, Bernards, Newlands and their friends pitched in to clean up "some of the rivets that blew out upon impact and ... the epoxy that was used to adhere the structure to the sandstone," Newlands said.
A few minutes after they had arrived, the four unidentified men managed to dismantle and remove the odd structure that captured the world's attention. Either way, Bernards maintains they made the right decision – the buzz around the monolith had been disturbing the natural serenity of the desert.
"They seemed to be on a mission to take it out, which to be honest we all agreed with," Bernards said. "It needed to come down. They were nice enough, but I have a feeling that when they saw us there, it just confirmed for them why they were out there in the first place."
He added on Instagram: "We could literally see people trying to approach it from every direction to try and reach it, permanently altering the untouched landscape. Mother Nature is an artist, it’s best to leave the art in the wild to her."
Utah's Office of Tourism issued a similar statement Monday to USA TODAY.
"While we recognize the world-wide interest the ‘monolith’ has generated, it can’t compete with the art of Mother Nature," read the statement from spokesperson Anna Loughridge. "It’s better suited to a museum or other public space where we mere mortals display our talents."
The Bureau of Land Management first reported the disappearance Saturday, making it clear that it was not the work of the federal agency that overseas public land.
"We have received credible reports that the illegally installed structure, referred to as the 'monolith' has been removed from Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands by an unknown party," the agency said in its Facebook statement. "The BLM did not remove the structure which is considered private property."
The case has been passed on to the local sheriff's office. Bernards said he hadn't heard from any officials regarding what he witnessed – they "probably think the four individuals were doing them a favor by taking it down."
Meanwhile, reports have surfaced of a second monolith popping up in Romania. USA TODAY has reached out to Romanian officials for comment.
The Utah Department of Public Safety discovered the object embedded into the rock during an expedition counting bighorn sheep in the barren region of southeastern Utah.
Contributing: Sara M. Moniuszko, Bryan Alexander
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Utah monolith disappearance: Photographer captures removal