A legal saga that threatened to upend fossil hunting in dinosaur-rich Montana has drawn to a close, and paleontologists are breathing a sigh of relief.
The Montana Supreme Court this week ruled that fossils are not legally the same as minerals such as gold or copper. Therefore, Montana fossils, including a dramatic specimen of two dinosaurs buried together, belong to people who own the land where they are found, rather than to the owners of the minerals underneath that land.
The 4-3 decision upholds the way U.S. scientists have long approached questions of fossil ownership. It appears to defuse a potentially explosive 2018 ruling by the federal 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that fossils went to the owners of mineral rights.
The outcome is a win for scientists who had warned that tying fossils to mineral rights could make it harder to get permission to excavate and could throw into doubt who owns fossils already on display, says David Polly, an Indiana University paleontologist and past president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The ruling is the final blow in a war that was, in many ways, already decided. In 2019, the Montana legislature passed a law affirming that fossils belong to landowners.
But it exempted active lawsuits, leaving open the case now decided by the state supreme court. “The general principle was already made by the legislature,” says Polly. “But it is good that the supreme court felt the same.”
The case revolves around an extraordinary trove of dinosaur fossils found on a ranch in remote eastern Montana. Starting in 2006, a 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 that whose skeletons were entwined, suggesting that perhaps they were 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. In some states, ownership of oil, gas, and minerals can be separated from the surface land.
A federal district court sided with the Murrays. But an appeals court panel ruled 2-1 that fossils went with the owners of mineral rights. The full circuit court granted a rehearing and sent the question to the Montana Supreme Court. On Wednesday, the state court’s majority wrote that despite “attempts to conflate ‘fossils’ and ‘minerals,’ the dinosaur fossils found on the Murray property are not minerals under the word’s common and ordinary meaning.”
The Murrays are “pleased” with the outcome, says Harlan Krogh, a Billings, Montana attorney who represents the couple. Although the case now goes back to the federal appellate court, “we believe that that effectively resolves the issue,” Krogh says of the new ruling.
The attorney for the losing side lamented the decision, saying the court put precious fossils in the same category as common rocks and dirt. “That just seems wrong to me,” says attorney Eric Wolff.
The state court’s decision doesn’t apply to other states, but Polly predicted it would carry legal weight if the issue comes up again. “This would undoubtedly be used as an exemplar,” he says.
It could also clear the way for the final sale of the “Dueling Dinosaurs.” The Murrays have an agreement to sell the paired fossils to a U.S.-based museum, says Krogh. The selling price is confidential, he says.
This deal is more good news for scientists, who feared the distinctive fossils would be bought by a private collector, keeping it from the public and researchers, says Polly. “That is wonderful,” he says. “It is a huge relief.”