Fight over di­nosaur fos­sils comes down to what’s min­eral

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Money - By Amy Beth Han­son

HE­LENA, Mont. — About 66 mil­lion years af­ter two di­nosaurs died ap­par­ently locked in bat­tle on the plains of mod­ern-day Mon­tana, an un­usual fight over who owns the en­tan­gled fos­sils has be­come a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar is­sue that hinges on the le­gal def­i­ni­tion of “min­eral.”

The 9th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals ruled this month that the “Du­el­ing Di­nosaurs” lo­cated on pri­vate land are min­er­als both sci­en­tif­i­cally and un­der min­eral rights laws. The fos­sils be­long both to the own­ers of the prop­erty where they were found and two broth­ers who kept two-thirds of the min­eral rights to the land once owned by their father, a three­judge panel said in a split de­ci­sion.

Eric Ed­ward Nord, an at­tor­ney for the prop­erty own­ers, said the case is com­plex in deal­ing with who owns what’s on top of land ver­sus the min­er­als that make it up and ad­dresses a unique ques­tion of min­eral rights law re­lated to di­nosaur fos­sils that no court in the coun­try has taken up be­fore.

His clients own part of a ranch in the Hell Creek For­ma­tion of east­ern Mon­tana that’s rich with pre­his­toric fos­sils, in­clud­ing the Du­el­ing Di­nosaurs whose value had been ap­praised at $7 mil­lion to $9 mil­lion.

Lige and Mary Ann Mur­ray bought it from Ge­orge Sev­er­son, who also trans­ferred part of his in­ter­est in the ranch to his sons, Jerry and Robert Sev­er­son. In 2005, the broth­ers sold their sur­face rights to the One of two “du­el­ing di­nosaur” fos­sils is shown in New York. Own­er­ship of two fos­silized di­nosaur skele­tons found on a Mon­tana ranch are sub­ject of a le­gal bat­tle.

Mur­rays, but re­tained the min­eral rights, court doc­u­ments said.

At the time, nei­ther side sus­pected valu­able di­nosaur fos­sils were buried on the ranch, court records said.

A few months later, am­a­teur pa­le­on­tol­o­gist Clay­ton Phipps dis­cov­ered the car­ni­vore and her­bi­vore ap­par­ently locked in bat­tle. Im­prints of the di­nosaurs’ skin were also in the sed­i­ment.

A dis­pute arose in 2008 when the Sev­er­sons learned

about the fos­sils — a

22-foot-long thero­pod and a

28-foot-long cer­atop­sian. The Mur­rays sought a court or­der say­ing they owned the Du­el­ing Di­nosaurs, while the Sev­er­sons asked a judge to find that fos­sils are part of the prop­erty’s min­eral es­tate and that they were en­ti­tled to par­tial own­er­ship.

It had wider im­pli­ca­tions be­cause the ranch is in an area that has nu­mer­ous pre­his­toric crea­tures pre­served in lay­ers of clay and sand­stone. Pa­le­on­tol­o­gists have un­earthed thou­sands of spec­i­mens now housed in mu­se­ums and used for re­search.

But fos­sils dis­cov­ered on pri­vate land can be pri­vately owned, frus­trat­ing pa­le­on­tol­o­gists who say valu­able sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion is be­ing lost.

Dur­ing the court case, the Du­el­ing Di­nosaurs were put up for auc­tion in New York in Novem­ber 2013. Bid­ding topped out at $5.5 mil­lion, less than the re­serve price of $6 mil­lion.

A nearly com­plete Tyran­nosaurus rex found on the prop­erty was sold to a Dutch mu­seum for sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars in

2014, with the pro­ceeds be­ing held in es­crow pend­ing the out­come of the court case.

Other fos­sils found on the ranch also have been sold, in­clud­ing a tricer­atops skull that brought in more than

$200,000, court records said. The 9th Cir­cuit de­ci­sion on Nov. 6 over­turned a fed­eral judge’s 2016 opin­ion that fos­sils were not in­cluded in the or­di­nary def­i­ni­tion of “min­eral” be­cause not all fos­sils with the same min­eral com­po­si­tion are con­sid­ered valu­able.

“The com­po­si­tion of min­er­als found in the fos­sils does not make them valu­able or worth­less,” U.S. District Judge Su­san Wat­ters of Billings wrote. “In­stead, the value turns on char­ac­ter­is­tics other than min­eral com­po­si­tion, such as the com­plete­ness of the spec­i­men, the species of di­nosaur and how well it is pre­served.”

The Sev­er­sons had ap­pealed, ar­gu­ing pre­vi­ous court cases de­ter­mined that nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring ma­te­ri­als that have some spe­cial value meet the def­i­ni­tion of min­er­als.

SETH WENIG/AP

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