Closings, Cancellations and Delays

Smithsonian Magazine

Court rules in favor of Montana ranchers in dinosaur fossil dispute

News Staff - June 30, 2020

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — An appeals court has ruled dinosaur fossils worth millions of dollars unearthed on an eastern Montana ranch belong to the owners of the land's surface rights.

The June 17 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2016 decision by U.S. District Judge Susan Watters of Billings that found dinosaur fossils were part of the surface estate, not the mineral estate, in cases of split ownership. The surface rights where the fossils were found near Jordan, are owned by Mary Ann and Lige Murray.

Before making its decision, the 9th Circuit asked Montana’s Supreme Court to rule on whether fossils were minerals under state law because at the time the case was filed, there was not a definitive law. In a 4-3 ruling last month, the Montana justices said dinosaur fossils are not considered minerals under state law.

The Court ruled that fossils are not legally the same as minerals such as gold or copper. Therefore, Montana fossils belong to people who own the land where they are found, rather than to the owners of the minerals underneath that land.

The case revolves around an extraordinary trove of dinosaur fossils found on a ranch in eastern Montana. Starting in 2006, one year after buying the property, Mary Anne and Lige Murray, in collaboration with a private fossil hunter, uncovered major finds including a complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. The most unique discovery was a pair of dinosaurs with entwined skeletons, named the “Dueling Dinosaurs,” suggesting they could have been locked in combat when they died.

Following the valuable discoveries, Jerry and Robert Severson, two brothers who sold the land to the Murrays, argued they were the partial owners. That’s because they had kept a share of the rights to the minerals under the land.

The dinosaurs unearthed on the ranch include a T. rex found in 2013, a triceratops skull discovered in 2011 and the 2006 discovery of the “Dueling Dinosaurs.”

The most recent ruling could also clear the way for the final sale of the “Dueling Dinosaurs.” News reports are that the Murrays have an agreement to sell the paired fossils to a U.S.-based museum for an undisclosed price.

In 2019, the Montana Legislature passed a bill stating that dinosaur fossils are part of a property’s surface estate unless they are reserved as part of the mineral estate.

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