Dinosaur Wars

Startling, one-of-a-kind fossils are unearthed in Montana – and shunned by scientists.

  • Artist's conception of the "Dueling Dinosaurs" found in Montana.

    Eric Baker
  • A dog pauses at an eroded bone in the Montana badlands, where paleontologists say it's impossible to keep up with the finds.

    Montana Hodges
  • At the CK Preparations facility where the Dueling Dinosaurs are stored, Chris Morrow holds a tooth he and his partners believe broke off the meat-eating dinosaur in its death match with a larger herbivore.

    Montana Hodges
  • "Dinosaur Cowboy" Clayton Phipps, whose team discovered, then excavated, the Dueling Dinosaurs.

    Montana Hodges
  • Katie Busch uses her foot for scale next to the Ceratopsian foot, seen in its plaster cast and field jacket at the CK Preparations facilities, where the Dueling Dinosaurs are awaiting auction.

    Montana Hodges
  • Robert Bakker, one of the few academics who supports the work of commercial fossil hunters like Phipps.

    Montana Hodges
  • Jack Horner, a paleontologist who won't even look at a commercial find like the Dueling Dinosaurs.

    Montana Hodges
  • Mary Ann Murray holds a triceratops horn that Katie Busch and Chris Morrow of CK Preparations turned up on her property, where the Dueling Dinosaurs also were found. Busch and Morrow are relying on small-scale prospecting on private land to supplement their income until the Dueling Dinosaurs sell.

    Montana Hodges

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Outside the small lackluster towns that dot eastern Montana lies rolling prairie occasionally broken by abandoned houses, wind-whipped sagebrush ridges and eerie patches of badlands. Thousands of these parched acres are required to support a family in the primary local occupations of ranching or farming. Garfield County, home to both Phipps and the Dueling Dinosaurs, has around 1,200 residents sprinkled over 5,000 square miles. Average household incomes are 30 percent below the national average, and people have been moving away for the last century. The population has decreased by almost 50 percent during Phipps' lifetime.

To a paleontologist, however, the badlands are a treasure trove. "Montana is the richest state, by virtue of having the highest number of different formations that are potentially dinosaur-bearing," says David Trexler, president of the nonprofit Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum, Mont.

Trexler grew up in the unincorporated hamlet of 31 people, and he and his family have spent their lives in the region. He left long enough to get a degree in paleontology, and his mother, an amateur fossil hunter, was the first to discover baby dinosaurs in Montana.

Eastern Montana contains wide swaths of the intensively studied Hell Creek Formation, a fossil-rich deposit of sediments laid down during the end of the dinosaurs' heyday, the late Cretaceous Period. Bones from the formation are constantly surfacing and eroding away, says Trexler, and there aren't enough academically trained paleontologists to keep up with them.

That's where the non-degreed fossil hunters come in.

Clayton Phipps has bright blue eyes and wears a Gene Autry-style neckerchief and black cowboy hat. The 40-year-old was raised on a sprawling ranch not far from the Dueling Dinosaur discovery. He always wanted to be a cowboy, although he never expected to become the Dinosaur Cowboy.

With his wife and three kids, Phipps lives in a partially remodeled home tucked away down a dirt road near a rare stand of pine trees. It is the home he knew as a child and the place he wants to raise his family. Their 1,100 acres might seem a kingdom to those outside Montana, but in this dry and rugged environment, the property is simply "a little too big to starve to death on," says Phipps.

Ranching proved unprofitable, so Phipps often worked as a ranch hand. He was introduced to the fossil business more than a decade ago during a chance encounter with a prospector who was working with a local rancher. Phipps knew the land well and saw an opportunity. "I had to supplement my income somehow," he says. "From the beginning, it has been my idea to propose to the landowners that value is there and they should be compensated for it."

The dinosaur fossil market ranges from unidentified bone chunks sold in souvenir shops, to identified teeth and claws, to complete skeletons offered by commercial middlemen, to carefully prepared museum specimens.  Buyers range from impulsive one-time customers to serious collectors and investors who think the value will rise over time. Phipps is a self-taught bone hunter, relying on books and the advice of other amateurs. As a child, he combed his backyard for arrowheads and other treasures. Now he focuses on fossils, scanning the ranches of the region, sometimes with partners, then splitting profits 50-50 with landowners. Although many ranchers tend to regard fossil hunters warily, Phipps has earned their trust as "the local neighbor boy."

"The (professional) bone hunters don't have a really good reputation around here, because a lot of the academics haven't done much for our community," Phipps says. "They've come in and said, 'Oh, yeah, we are going to study this,' then no one hears anything about it after they leave."

With proceeds from his first fossil sale, Phipps bought some cows. Then, in 2003, he discovered the world's most complete skull of Stygimoloch, a type of tall dome-headed dinosaur. That brought him the equivalent of a year's salary -- enough money to tend to his own ranch. His success inspired him to continue seeking fossils, often in the company of a friend, Mark Eatman, and later his cousin, Chad O'Connor.

It was Eatman who first glimpsed the Dueling Dinosaurs on the 2006 prospecting trip. Eatman had other dramatic finds in his past, including "Tinker," a Montana T. rex discovered in 1998. Still, the earnings from his carpentry job in Billings weren't enough to pay for excavating Tinker, and he sold the fossil to a commercial company while it was still in the ground.

O'Connor is a tall, strong-looking man with a limited range of motion due to cerebral palsy. During conversations, Phipps translates his cousin's slurred words. O'Connor says he went out dinosaur hunting for the very first time that fateful day, hoping to "find something that could change my life."

As the trio examined the bones they'd found, Phipps spotted cattle nearby and realized he wasn't on his brother's land, as he'd thought. The cattle carried the brand of Mary Ann and Lige Murray's 25,000-acre ranch; luckily, he had permission to prospect on their land.

Phipps told the Murrays about the find and they planned to meet once hay-cutting season was over. When they finally did so later in June, it didn't take long for the group to agree to start digging that day. Phipps was so excited, he says, that when it came time to break for lunch, he opted to stay with the dinosaur instead. By the time the others returned, Phipps had exposed nearly half a skeleton, using small hand tools. A couple weeks later, they had uncovered a complete ceratopsian.

As Phipps began excavating a perimeter around the ceratopsian block with a backhoe, he dumped his bucket and a large, sharp claw fell out. Ceratopsians didn't have claws. "Man, my hat went in the air," says Phipps. "Things were just going through my head like crazy, because here is this meat-eater in with this plant-eater, and obviously they weren't friends."

The claw led him to a complete theropod, one of a group of big-footed bipeds popularized in Hollywood movies (think Jurassic Park's velociraptors). This particular specimen turned out to be a tyrannosaurid that Bakker and others believe to be the controversial Nanotyrannus. "A theropod is something every fossil hunter dreams of finding," Phipps says. "It's the wolf of the Cretaceous."

Mary McBee
Mary McBee Subscriber
Aug 22, 2013 12:41 PM
In reading this article, I puzzled about whether these fossil hunters can legally claim fossils they found on 'ranch lands' that are simply claimed re. grazing leases by the rancher, or whether the rancher actually owns all that land. After living in the west for over 30 years, it became obvious to me that when a rancher would say his ranch was '5000 acres or 20,000 acres, etc.'... often in reality, he just 'owned' the homesteaded far smaller acreage (usually around a water source)and then only had temporary grazing rights on the rest. If so, I'd think fossils found on those leased lands... regardless of found by whom... would still legally belong to the public.? Perhaps the author could respond?
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson Subscriber
Aug 29, 2013 09:26 AM
Hi Mary, here's a reply from author Montana Hodges: "Excellent question from the reader. They are correct, most ranchers lease land and may only own a portion. To answer the question, the fossils belong to the landowner of the deeded acres, the person who would have title to the real estate and not to the person leasing the land. The Murray Ranch does have a variety of leases but the dinosaurs were excavated from a deeded portion of their ranch. Hope that helps!"
James Kirkland
James Kirkland
Feb 27, 2014 09:23 AM
First off; I have been following this discovery for some years and think it is an important discovery. Additionally, I "think" that everything a scientist needs to properly conduct a repeatable scientific study, including visiting the site and significant levels of documentation of the excavation, would be available to an institution acquiring the specimens. However, the money involved is many times what I have spent (including salaries; when I got paid) aver my entire 40 year career hunting dinosaurs and I've had named 20 dinosaurs.

Only the largest institutions, are not in a constant fund raising battle to keep their doors open, let alone have a qualified staff paleontologist. In Montana, the big institution is Museum of the Rockies (thanks to bringing on Jack Horner). States like Wyoming, Idaho, and Arizona do not even have that. Utah has only had stable Museum-based paleontology programs for the past 20 years. I'm in a state research institution and my first job is not doing paleontology, but trying to raise money to do paleontology and to facilitate for our smaller museums. We have more dinosaur species and the most complete evolutionary record of dinosaurs in the nation and, sans China, the world. If the money used to buy their dinosaurs was donated to my program, I could excavate at least 25 new dinosaur species over the next 10 years, if not 50 new species!

Just to get across the difficulty in raising money to conduct exciting paleontology research; we have been trying to get the funds for a few years now to hire or donation of a heavy lift helicopter to lift a dozen plus Utahraptor skeletons (min. one adult, 3 juveniles, and one baby on edge of 7 ton block) off a high Mesa.
Basically, we have a pack or family of Utahraptors trapped in quicksand; with "Jurassic Park 4" coming out in a couple of years, what is sexier than that!

If you want to put up this kind of money; do you not want to get the most bang for your buck. I'll name a few dinosaurs after you and your friends!