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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Finding the Dueling Dinosaurs felt like winning the lottery to everyone involved, especially the landowners. Mary Ann and Lige Murray came to Montana in 1971, fresh out of college and chasing the cowboy dream. They worked their way up from ranch hands to owners but haven't yet paid off the land they bought 30 years ago. With the discovery of the dinosaurs came hope. "If you found an oil well on your land, would you be willing to just donate it or give it away?" asks Murray. "It is an investment we made when we bought the land. It's no different than finding minerals on your place."

Phipps and his partners initially considered an auction, but their desire to have the dinosaurs available for science has kept them off the block -- until now. After consultations with commercial appraisers, they priced the Dueling Dinosaurs at $9.8 million. "That's what people don't understand, and I don't think our country does, because it is just three or four times in the world they have found two together. And these are the biggest and most complete," says Murray. "Lige and I can certainly use the money, but (Clayton and his partners) can, too, and Chad is disabled. It's a win-win for everybody."

Despite the big price tag, the Dinosaur Cowboy contends that his requests remain simple. He's put his family's money, along with hundreds of hours of time, into the collection and preparation of the dinosaurs, and he wants to make enough to remain on his land and pay some bills.

He and his partners have watched other dinosaurs pass through the market in recent years, mostly at the drop of a gavel. Two years ago, the "Fighting Dinosaurs," a Stegosaurus and Allosaurus found near each other in a Wyoming quarry, fetched $2.75 million from an undisclosed buyer overseas. Offers have been made on the Dueling Dinosaurs by unnamed parties, but nothing has come to fruition.

Soon the blocks will be shipped to Bonhams New York City auction house, where they'll be offered in a Nov. 19 sale along with other fossils and collectibles. Bonhams expects the bones to fetch between $6 million and $9 million. Until then, the bones are gathering dust at CK Preparations, lingering in the hopes that Ronald McDonald, Mickey Mouse or an anonymous Samaritan will save the day. Morrow and Busch live in a trailer next to the facility they bought to house the dinosaurs. Larson's Nanotyrannus thesis is on hold.

Bakker says all the paleontological infighting has obscured the real –– and important –– story of these fossils, one that could change our understanding of dinosaur behavior: a duel to the death during the last days of the dinosaurs. "That comes from a sense of elitism I really dislike," he says. "I call it the priestly caste."

For his part, Phipps wants the Dueling Dinosaurs to be publicly displayed. He'd also like to have a replica donated to the local museum in Jordan. Replicas are just fine, he says, because the town museum can't afford to keep the heat on and icy air is bad for fossils. "I'm hoping someday I can take my grandchildren to go see them," Phipps says, "and tell them, 'Your ol' granddaddy found those dinosaurs.' "

Montana Hodges is a freelance writer and author of five books. She received her MA in science journalism from the University of Montana, and is currently working on her Ph.D. in paleontology.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

To see video interviews with several of the individuals who appear in this story, go here.

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.
http://www.ksl.com/?sid=25546101
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!