On a sunny, 99-degree day in northern Montana, Clayton Phipps grabs a backpack and heads for a small trench, maybe a foot deep. He drops to his knees, his auburn hair flared out beneath his black Stetson, then opens his pack, removes a knife that looks best suited to cutting steak, and gets to work.
He picks through gray sand, then red sand, then dark, damp sand that smells like wet socks doused in talcum powder. When he looks up, a tiny, chocolate-colored block is between his fingers. “A little triceratops tooth,” he says. “I’ll get probably 50 of these on an average day. They’re only worth maybe five bucks, but 50 of them adds up.”
We’re standing on a flattened sandstone hill that’s Phipps’s to dig, on pasture land he owns. Surrounding us is a panorama of dirt and dust and stone and shale. In the distance are Angus cattle, black like fresh charcoal, grazing lazily. Phipps has valiantly hobbled along on crutches to bring me here. He’s been a cattle rancher for going on 30 of his 48 years. Branding season finished up just days ago, and the horse he was riding over the weekend got rambunctious, bucking and slamming him down hard on the saddle. He hasn’t seen the doctor, but he’s sure his pelvis is cracked.
The hill where we’re standing lies atop the Hell Creek Formation, a 300-foot-thick rock bed snaking from the Dakotas to Montana and down into Wyoming. It dates back some 67 million years, to the Cretaceous Period, when Tyrannosaurus rex had the run of the place, and it’s by far the best record we have of what Earth was like just before the mass-extinction event that ended the age of dinosaurs. This particular corner of Hell Creek is so rich in fossilized reptilian material that Phipps has dubbed it Old Faithful.
Despite having no formal training and no academic background, Phipps is one of America’s leading commercial fossil hunters. His nickname is the Dinosaur Cowboy. If you’ve heard of him, it’s probably because he’s one of the stars of Dino Hunters, a show that started its second season on the Discovery Channel this summer. Phipps is also famous for finding the Dueling Dinosaurs, a specimen containing the complete fossils of a 22-foot-long T. rex and a 28-foot-long triceratops that may have been locked in combat. It’s only the second set of fossils that have been found depicting a carnivore and a herbivore together. Phipps unearthed it in 2006, just 10 miles from Old Faithful. Tyler Lyson, a paleontologist with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science who’s seen the bones up close, calls it “one of the most remarkable finds in the last 50 years.”
Last fall, Phipps sold the Dueling Dinosaurs for $6 million to a nonprofit affiliated with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, which then donated the find to the museum. Lindsay Zanno, the museum’s head of paleontology, who will lead research on the fossils, still recalls the moment she saw them in person, during a meeting with Phipps in 2016. “They look as if they could climb right out of the rock,” she says. “You’re almost transported back to that day they died.” Scientists hope the specimens will answer questions about dinosaur behavior, including whether or not the pair was actually fighting.
Yet the sale reopened a controversy that divides some fossil researchers from fossil hunters like Phipps. Many paleontologists, leery of amateurs’ methods and commitment to science, contend that fossils should be part of the public trust, not a profit vehicle for individual diggers. And right now, the market for dinosaurs is red-hot. Not long before the Dueling Dinosaurs were purchased, the bones of Stan—a 40-foot-long T. rex dug up by Peter and Neal Larson in South Dakota—were auctioned by Christie’s to an anonymous buyer for $31.8 million, the most ever paid for a single fossil.
Phipps occupies a unique position in this world. He tries to sell his finds to museums but admits that sales to private collectors have bailed out his ranch several times. The two approaches, he maintains, can complement each other, especially since fossil hunters are out there seeking bones that might otherwise be lost forever. “More fossils are being destroyed by Mother Nature than are collected,” Phipps says. “There’s no reason we can’t all work together.”
For a dinosaur, dying was the easy part of becoming a fossil. To be preserved, the creature's body needed to lie in a spot where it could be buried quickly by soft sedimentary rock. Then its bones had to remain more or less undisturbed across tens of millions of years, through countless rainstorms, shifting glaciers, and collapsing cliffsides. That’s why there aren’t that many fossils of dinosaurs even though they roamed the Earth for almost 165 million years. The few relative hotbeds for finding them include the Dinosaur Park Formation in Alberta, Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs, areas in China and Patagonia, and the Isle of Wight in England.
Much of the land in the Dakotas, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming also meets the environmental conditions for discovery. Rock layers that formed there around the end of the Cretaceous Period have been eroding ever since, bringing dinosaur bones—which are much harder than the shale, clay, and sand in which they’re buried—to the surface. Once a fossil begins weathering out of the ground, it’s only a matter of time before the freeze, thaw, wind, rain, or animals destroy it forever. Phipps calls much of what he discovers “chunkosaurus,” broken fragments of bone worth no more than a plug nickel. Sometimes, though, rare treasures lie in wait.
In many countries, including Canada and Mongolia, dinosaur fossils belong to the state. But in the U.S., private property reigns supreme, and bones excavated on private lands are beholden only to the law of finders, keepers. So long as they’re digging with the land owner’s permission, commercial hunters can do whatever they want with fossils. Federal lands are handled differently: Scientists secure permits to excavate but must ensure any fossils they recover make their way to an approved repository, such as an accredited museum, for the purposes of education and research. Native American lands are handled differently still, requiring permission from the tribes to dig.
Phipps’s interest in fossil hunting traces to 1998. He was working as a hand on a neighbor’s ranch, and a man came along asking the landowners if he could scour the property for fossils. A couple of days later, he showed Phipps a bit of triceratops frill—the shieldlike plate that adorned the creatures’ heads—and told him it was worth about $500. An obsession took hold.
Commercial hunting of dinosaur bones dates to at least the 1800s, but for a long time, it wasn’t necessarily a fortune-making enterprise, even as private collectors often contributed to the fossil-gathering efforts of museums. But in 1997, a virtually complete T. rex skeleton—named Sue, after its discoverer, Sue Hendrickson—was auctioned off by Sotheby’s to the Field Museum in Chicago for $8.36 million, a record for a dinosaur fossil. Sue’s excavation had been handled by the Larson brothers’ company, which later exhumed Stan. They’d dug her up in 1990, at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota, on the land of a Sioux rancher whose deed was held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Multiple parties, including the U.S. Department of the Interior, staked a claim, but the fossil ultimately became the property of the rancher, whose land had reverted to private ownership shortly after Sue was unearthed. The rancher then sold the fossil off.
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