Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana.
Photo by Tom Fowlks
In Montana’s dinosaur-rich hills, fossils can be the path to scientific discovery, or a major payday.
BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
Dried grass encircles a large stone sign at the end of a driveway east of Glendive, within spitting distance of Interstate 94. Below the chiseled profile of a triceratops skull, the words “Baisch’s Dinosaur Digs” advertise a side-business the Baisch family have been operating on their ranch for the past 12 years. Shana Baisch walks by the sign and past an old suburban with a cracked side-view mirror toward a set of blue double doors with white trim. A dog whines at her feet. The doors open to reveal a world roughly 68 million years old.
“This is our display room,” Baisch says. “Not organized and cleaned yet for the season.”
She crosses the concrete floor to a far corner, where the pallet-sized upper skull of a triceratops weighing several thousand pounds lies partially encased in plaster. Lumpy masses of hardened earth cover the fossil below the frill and around the horns like pale grey blisters, remnants of the ancient sediments that trapped this gigantic creature from the Cretaceous Period to the day a client from Sidney stumbled across its nasal horn in 2017. It took a bulldozer, a payloader and about 54 days, Baisch says, to move the specimen from its original resting place and into Baisch’s Dinosaur Digs HQ.
“It was in a hole about 15 feet down,” she continues, running a finger gently along a blood groove in the triceratops’ frill. “We had to pull it out of this hole and then send it down the hill that was 250 feet or something.”
Benches, tall shelves and glass display cases crowd the rest of the room, lined with bits and pieces of prehistoric flora and fauna. Fossilized palm branches, ancient turtle shells, the jaw bones and vertebrae of duck-billed Edmontosauruses, teeth from the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex. Along one wall crouches the fully articulated skeleton of a Struthiomimus, an exact replica of a specimen uncovered on the Baisch ranch and sold to a museum in Doha, Qatar, for a few hundred thousand dollars.
“Took us like 20 years, we finally got the replica,” she says. “It was 16-[feet] long.”
Baisch’s tour unfolds on my laptop screen as I sit on my deck in Missoula, some 560 miles away. Originally, the plan was for me to see all this in person, from the display room to the mounds of sediment and mushroom-like rock caps that make up the northern slice of the Hell Creek Formation along the Montana- North Dakota border where the fossils were found. Then coronavirus swept its way into Montana. Baisch’s mother-in-law Marge, who started the operation, and Baisch’s grandson are both among the demographics likely to have trouble with the disease. For their safety and mine, I called off my field trip, and Baisch agreed to capture the experience for me as best she could on video.
Baisch and her family are members of a small but dedicated cottage industry in eastern Montana that offers dinosaur fanatics and the Mesozoically uninitiated an opportunity to unearth the monsters of our planet’s past. These fossil hunting outfits have been around for decades, operated by farmers and ranchers much the way that some ag families on the fringes of the Bob Marshall Wilderness guide hunters and guests into the backcountry. On the Baisch’s ranch, you can pick through the hills for prehistoric bones for $120 a day—$80 for a half-day—and take home most of what you might find. To call it a side-hustle barely scratches the surface, though. The Struthiomimus that ended up in Qatar? “That one helped finish paying the ranch off,” Baisch says.
There’s money to be made in the fossil game. That sentence alone opens a door to a nebulous world, one where the forces of science, capitalism, property rights and legal definition are in constant, dizzying contention. It’s a world that has birthed lawsuits, legislative action, criminal charges and one of the Treasure State’s most popular tourism calling cards. Welcome to Montana’s dinosaur country.
Clayton Phipps had a heck of a time finding the Nanotyrannus’ skull. Following along the carnivore’s neck, he came across a smooth black ridge he at first took to be the ilium, or pelvic crest. Phipps scratched his head, wondering if he’d separated the skull from the rest of the specimen with his backhoe.
“Then it dawned on me,” he says. “That skull is upside-down.”
In response, chuckles echo across the cavernous lab near Fort Peck along the Hi-Line in northeastern Montana, including the laugh of world-renowned paleontologist Robert T. Bakker, who stands next to the specimen swinging his token white straw cowboy hat. The moment comes halfway through a video posted to YouTube in October 2011 by the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research. To date, the video only has 17,126 views. But if you’re looking for a glimpse of what might be the most famous fossil yet uncovered in Montana, that video is the best you’ll get.
Few people today know exactly where the Dueling Dinosaurs are housed. According to a 2019 article by The Guardian, the number of individuals who have even seen them remains in the low double digits. Why this fantastic discovery—a horned ceratopsian and the aforementioned T. rex-like Nanotyrannus—lies hidden away is a story that’s generated national headlines and cuts to the heart of Montana’s paleontological struggles.
Phipps and a friend first stumbled across the Dueling Dinosaurs in June 2006 while scouring the Hell Creek Formation for fossils. Phipps’s reputation as a fossil hunter in Montana, coupled with his trademark Stetson, had earned him the nickname “Dino Cowboy,” and his first big find in 2003, the spiked skull of a human-sized, plant-eating Stygimoloch, netted him $40,000. When he first saw the Dueling Dinosaurs, they were merely a pelvis and femur weathering out of the Hell Creek’s sandy, arid hills. A month later he returned to the spot with the landowners, a Glendive-area ranch couple named Lige and Mary Ann Murray. They gave him permission to excavate.
What Phipps uncovered over the next three months was huge. Physically, the Dueling Dinosaurs constituted four refrigerator-sized blocks of bone and matrix—the term for the layers of hardened sediment in which fossils are trapped—each weighing multiple tons. Scientifically, the specimen had the potential to resolve an ongoing paleontological dispute over the existence of a T. rex relative dubbed Nanotyrannus. Commercially, Phipps’ discovery was appraised at between $7 million and $9 million.
The Dueling Dinosaurs weren’t the only fossils waiting to be dug up on the Murray ranch. In the seven years following Phipps’s initial find, the Murrays discovered a Triceratops foot and skull and the complete fossilized skeleton of a T. rex, all of which were put up for sale. According to records from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the foot sold for $20,000, the skull was offered up for $200,000 to $250,000, and the Murray T. rex was purchased by a Dutch museum for “several million dollars.” The Dueling Dinosaurs themselves eventually went on the block at the New York auction house Bonhams in 2013, though none of the bids reached the $6 million reserve price.
The commodification of dinosaur remains dates clear back to the late 19th century, when famed rival paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh sank their personal fortunes into acquiring strange and as-then unknown prehistoric species. Both men employed armies of fossil collectors to scour the West, some former academics and others local thugs.
Nearly 120 years after Cope and Marsh’s so-called “Bone Wars” left both in financial ruin, a Sotheby’s auctioneer in 1997 opened the bidding for one of the best-preserved T. rex skeletons ever found at $500,000. Museums were eager to ensure that Sue didn’t fall into private hands. The Smithsonian was reportedly prepared to spend $2.5 million for her. But thanks to financial support from major donors including McDonald’s and the Walt Disney Company, Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History walked away with Sue for $8.36 million.
“Brown went on to uncover the first fossils of deinonychus, the toe-clawed inspiration for Spielberg’s verlociraptors, eventually leading to the realization that modern birds evolved from dinosaurs.”
For professional paleontologists, snatching fossils like Sue from the commercial market isn’t just about displaying them for the museum-going public. Increasing our understanding of these ancient creatures and their environment depends on peer-reviewed study and guaranteed access to specimens. However, most academic publications refuse to accept scientific papers about fossils in private collections, and the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology denounces the sale of scientifically significant fossils unless the aim is to bring them into public trust.
In the scientific journal Palaeontologia Electronica in 2014, paleontologists from the U.S. and Canada declared the fight against the commercial fossil market “the greatest challenge to paleontology of the 21st century.” But the issue isn’t exactly black and white in the eyes of Cary Woodruff, director of paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana. He’s no big fan of commercial fossil collecting himself, though he knows and even works with some collectors. Ultimately it boils down to a question of legality versus morality.
“All of us go out in hunting season and go on public lands,” Woodruff says. “We may be a bit jealous of those guys who can pay all this money to do a big leased hunt that’s guided on private land. But at the end of the day, they’re not breaking the law, and neither are these commercial [fossil] collectors. If they follow the laws appropriately.”
However, in 2018, the legal rug was ripped out from under paleontologists and private collectors alike. And it was all due to the Dueling Dinosaurs.
Today, the Badlands of North-Central United States invoke images of Native tribes, weary Westbound settlers and herds of bison stretching clear to the horizon. Deep cracks run down these crumbly canyon walls like fissures in dry skin. Veins of rich red run horizontally along the folds and creases of packed sediment, giving the otherwise dun-colored landscape a splash of glorious 19th century impressionism.
It was from this terrible, beautiful ground that Barnum Brown, a storied and eccentric fossil hunter, pulled a creature that shocked the world. In 1902, Brown blasted the hillsides of Montana’s Hell Creek Formation with dynamite, loosening the hard, blue sandstone to uncover a 1,000-pound elongated skull boasting rows of massive teeth. By 1906, the skeleton had been pieced together at an exhibit hall in New York, and the beast was given a name: Tyrannosaurus rex.
That’s right. Big Sky Country produced the first specimen of a prehistoric species that would go on to frighten moviegoers throughout the 1990s. And Montana hasn’t slowed in revealing its Mesozoic secrets. Brown went on to uncover the first fossils of Deinonychus, the toe-clawed inspiration for Spielberg’s velociraptors, eventually leading to the realization that modern birds evolved from dinosaurs.
In the late 1970s, locals in Choteau stumbled across the tiny fossilized bones of baby Maiasaura, a large duck-billed herbivore. The find caught the attention of famed paleontologist and Jurassic Park dino consultant Jack Horner, who subsequently led a dig that yielded not only fossilized Maiasaura eggs but proof that these creatures reared their young in nests. And in 2000, the ground in Phillips County surrendered a stunningly preserved duck-billed specimen named Leonardo. When a NASA team X-rayed Leonardo’s stomach cavity in the mid 2000s, they discovered the remains of numerous prehistoric plants as well as potential evidence of parasitic worms.
The richness of Montana’s contribution to the fossil record leads to an obvious question: Why here? To understand the Treasure State’s paleontological track record, you need to think of time in a geologic sense. Woodruff likens it to a book: Each layer of rock represents a different period of time in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. Dinosaurs lived during a relatively short chapter in that book, one we call the Mesozoic Era, which extended from 230 million to 65 million years ago. Though the Mesozoic is a pretty recent chapter, leafing back to it isn’t easy.
In Montana, that’s where glaciers came in. These massive sheets of ice once covered much of North America, redirecting rivers in the eastern part of the state and leading to intense erosion of soft sedimentary rock. The results, some 11,000 years later, are the fossil-rich badlands where so many dinosaur specimens have been unearthed.
“Commericial paleontology’s looking for the next spectacular million-dollar gold find. We’re looking for the next spectacular breakthrough, the next spectacular scientific discovery.”
“A lot of that younger rock that was on top of the time of dinosaurs was basically carved away,” Woodruff says. “A lot of the state has been flipped open to the right page in time.”
Ready access to those pages is what’s drawn paleontologists to Montana for more than a century. It’s also given rise to the famed Dinosaur Trail, a collection of more than a dozen museums across the state that’s heavily promoted by the Montana Office of Tourism. The trail offers visitors to far-flung towns such as Ekala, Rudyard and Harlowton a chance to not just see dinosaur fossils but to help uncover them. Woodruff’s museum is one of several that host hands-on summer dig programs for children and adults alike.
“If we’re ever going to get people to understand or want to understand how the earth works, we need to get them involved with it,” says Cory Coverdell, director of paleontology at Bynum’s Two Medicine Dinosaur Center. “It’s a different story when people are on the ground looking at what you’re doing and why you do it … The public makes decisions about the earth, so it’s important for people to somewhat understand what’s going on.”
The glaciers of the Pleistocene period opened the book for paleontologists, but some of those pages remain out of reach. Vertebrate fossils on public land have long been considered property of the people of the United States. Fossils found on private property, though, belong to whomever holds the surface right. And as public lands only account for approximately 29 percent of Montana, private landowners hold the keys to a significant chunk of history.
In February 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed more than a century of common agreement over fossil ownership in awarding the former owners of the Murrays’ ranch partial claim over the Dueling Dinosaurs. The owners had retained two-thirds of the mineral estate in the sale, and the court reached the unusual conclusion that fossils, like oil and gas, were part of that estate.
The legal dispute over the Dueling Dinosaurs is hardly the first, or most dramatic, example of the turbulent interplay between fossils and property rights. At 7:30 a.m. on May 14, 1992, a team of 30 FBI agents descended on South Dakota’s Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, sealing off the firm’s Hill City headquarters and seizing the remains of Sue, the very same T. rex that five years later would end up selling at auction for a cool $8.36 million. The raid climaxed a tense ownership tug-of-war between the Institute’s president, Peter Larson, and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, which alleged that Sue had been illegally taken from land held in federal trust for one of its members.
“I’m reminded of the last scene in the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark,” paleontologist Robert T. Bakker told The New York Times, “in which the U.S. government, having seized the ark of the covenant, locks it away in a forgotten warehouse.”
In other words, Montana’s geology isn’t the only layered cake that paleontologists and commercial fossil hunters have to contend with. Laws governing access and fossil ownership vary across federal, state, tribal and private lands. Removing a fossil without proper permission carries a hefty consequence, as Nathan Murphy, the amateur paleontologist who discovered Leonardo, found out in April 2009 when he pleaded guilty to stealing 13 fossilized dinosaur bones from public land.
“I come out of it stronger and wiser,” says Murphy, who leads weeklong digs through the private Judith River Dinosaur Institute for up to $1,795 per person. “I don’t trust people with necessarily knowing their boundaries, property boundaries. That’s why I’ve invested in great equipment to know where I [am] at all times, so that I don’t make the same mistake again.”
The value that private collectors place on significant specimens has the effect, intended or not, of creating a competitive atmosphere. According to Woodruff and Coverdell, museum-based paleontologists in the state have managed to maintain strong relationships with numerous private landowners. But other fossil-rich sites have become the province of commercial collectors or private pay-to-dig outfits where landowners retain the right to keep and sell whatever’s found. Coverdell adds that even large museums rarely have the funds to scoop up significant discoveries that land on the commercial market.
“There are a few museums that buy significant fossils,” Coverdell says. “But for every one of those, there are nine or 10 other museums that don’t have the budget or the willingness to take those.”
Litigation over the Dueling Dinosaurs put the Murray’s profits from their 2014 T. rex sale into temporary escrow and resulted in the specimens themselves being hidden away at an undisclosed location. In the wake of the Ninth Circuit decision, the Murrays took the case to the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled in their favor in May 2020. The case has now joined the crowded, dusty shelf of legal precedent. But outside the courts, it became a rallying cry for commercial collectors and academics alike, who in 2019 took their shared fight to the Montana Legislature. There, like the massive prehistoric feet responsible for making the stone tracks propped in a corner of Coverdell’s museum, is where the Dueling Dinosaurs left their deepest impression.
A relentless fall wind batters the sides of the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in late September. Occasionally, the vibrations shake Seismo, the 137-foot-long skeletal Seismosaurus model that snakes along the center’s ceiling, to sudden swaying life. Coverdell reclines at his crowded workbench, discussing the dinosaur world’s schism in the casually exasperated tone of someone who has recognized the problem for far too long.
“The problem is just that we’re all looking for the same [thing],” he says. “Commercial paleontology’s looking for the next spectacular million-dollar gold find. We’re looking for the next spectacular breakthrough, the next spectacular scientific discovery. And I don’t know that we’ll ever find a happy medium where we can both work together.”
Coverdell believes the commercial side of paleontology has moved beyond the realm of science and into that of art, with a fossil’s value based more on its own contemporary story than what it could say about Earth’s history. For academics like Coverdell, though, fossils alone aren’t the goal of discovery. To answer questions about an ancient creature’s life, its death and the world around it, context is everything. The public digs that Coverdell and other Montana museums lead include lessons on recording site data such as stratigraphy, or the particular layer of the geologic record in which a fossil is found. That seemingly simple detail can tell scientists a lot.
Part of what vexes Coverdell and Woodruff about the commercial fossil hunting industry is the lack of education on these scientific nuances. In the case of the Dueling Dinosaurs, Phipps and others involved with the excavation have publicly insisted that their work on the specimen met the highest scientific standards. However, some paleontologists have challenged those assertions based on Phipps’ status as a commercial hunter and the monetary considerations involved in the find. “As far as I’m concerned,” Jack Horner told Smithsonian Magazine in 2017, “those specimens are scientifically useless.”
So when, on Feb. 16, 2019, paleontologists and commercial hunters alike appeared before the Montana Legislature to testify in favor of the same bill—to codify fossils as a surface right —it came as no small moment in time. John Scannella, paleontology curator at the Museum of the Rockies, told lawmakers that treating fossils as minerals would “threaten our continued understanding of life on Earth.”
From a legal standpoint, Coverdell says the Ninth Circuit’s ruling put fossils in a similar situation to that of cultural objects looted by the Nazis during World War II. The National Archives estimates that nearly 20 percent of Europe’s artwork was seized from German-occupied countries, and that as many as 100,000 looted pieces are still missing today. Coverdell says that granting ownership of fossils to mineral rights holders threatened to tag as “looted” specimens that had been in museums for decades.
The bill passed unanimously. And while some commercial hunters maintain that the victory was enough, Woodruff argues the state has to go further. He believes more must be done to improve incentive programs for fossils donated to the public trust, and to work closely with farmers and ranchers in developing those solutions.
“Many countries in the last 10, 15 years have been switching over and really, I think, properly understanding that fossils are a part of their national heritage and identity,” Woodruff says. “Fossils [here] need to be brought into that same fold, thought about and viewed as part of our national heritage.”
“The selling of skeletons and dinosaur bones, it’s not like cattle. You don’t just go take your dinosaur bones to the market and sell them.”
Dinosaurs continue to tease and fascinate our imaginations. Their skeletal remains require our eyes to add muscle and skin and, today, even feathers to complete the picture. For every new layer that scientific revelations paint on these boney canvasses, a dozen more remain for us color in. If for no other reason than that, the legal and economic pressures weighing down on these captivating specimens are unsurprising and at the same time a damn shame.
About 10 years ago, one of the Baisch family’s fossil-hunting regulars, an attorney from New York, came across the remains of an herbivorous, dome-headed pachycephalosaurus. Baisch recalls it was a beautiful specimen, and they brought in outside experts to do the excavation. It’s now housed with a Colorado-based fossil preparation firm awaiting a buyer. According to Baisch, it could go for $200,000 to $300,000, of which her family would get a percentage.
“The selling of skeletons and dinosaur bones, it’s not like cattle. You don’t just go take your dinosaur bones to the market and sell them,” she says. “You can have something that’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars but you can hang onto it for years and years to find that buyer.”
Deals like that may put Baisch on the fringes of the nebulous paleontology-or-profit world. But outrage and intrigue haven’t dampened the childlike awe that drew her to dinosaurs in the first place. On a sunny day in late March, she stood on the edge of the Hell Creek Formation. She scanned the dunny hills with her cell phone camera, halting on a tall mass of ancient sediment flanked by a steep, shadowed ridge.
“I’m going to walk over here and climb up that hill, right in there somewhere, and see if I can find some fossil coming out,” she said.
Baisch’s trek to get me video of the fossil hunting site didn’t take her too far out of her normal routine. She regularly walks these hills and gullies in search of dinosaurs. She’d be the first to admit she’s no expert, but through self-teaching and constant hunting, her eyes have calibrated to distinguish ancient secrets from the surrounding flecks of rock. Most of what she finds weathering out of the property would be of little interest to museums, she says. To her, though, they’re results of a treasure hunt. Collecting them is tantamount to rescuing bits of the past before wind and rain reduce them to fossil dust.
And if a few specimens prove impressive enough to net a pay-day? Well, Baisch says, a heated shop would go a long way in improving daily life on the ranch.
“If you found a Picasso stacked in your attic, you would go sell it. If you find oil on your land, you’d go sell it,” she adds. “It’s not a mystic thing. It’s a historical thing.”
Alex Sakariassen is a Missoula-based journalist who writes about science, politics and the environment. He spent childhood summers a hop and a skip from an ancient Maiasaura nesting site on the Rocky Mountain Front.