Lee Randall had unearthed the bones of dead bison on his property before, but nothing this big.
Last weekend, Randall announced he and a crew of paleontologists had excavated a Columbian mammoth, estimated between 20,000 and 10,000 years old, from the banks of the Powder River meandering through his property near Broadus. Today, experts hope the remains can help tell the story of how the animals lived and died.
Eventually finding the tusks and skull largely intact, and the animal’s molars captured in the process of revolving a new set, Randall said he was awestruck.
“The tusks’ size was six or seven feet, by far not the biggest ones,” he said, “but even being seven feet, they were just colossal.”
Eastern Montana has a strong showing as a hotbed, or deathbed, for fossils and artifacts.The region has produced several different dinosaur remains, including the most complete juvenile tyrannosaurus ever found. The Carter County Museum about 70 miles away was the first facility in Montana to display dinosaurs and today exhibits a nearly complete duckbill dinosaur and a full triceratops skull. The museum also carries exhibits from more recent history, like an American Indian artifact exhibit, a veterans room and a two-headed calf.
That’s all to say that Randall, a cattle rancher from Broadus, was happy to be aboard when the museum helped him extract the mammoth over the last two summers.
“It was a once in a lifetime deal for me,” Randall said. “I enjoyed being able to participate in it and it was pretty exciting.”
Randall first discovered the Columbian mammoth on his property after an angler walking the Powder River noticed some bones peeking out from a riverbank. He hadn’t come for the over-sized bones, so the angler looked up his location on Google Maps and contacted the Carter County Museum, which got back to Randall about the potentially prehistoric finding. So, Randall took the angler’s map and set out on what would most likely be the closest thing to a treasure hunt he’d ever been on.
“I went out, started hunting trying to use the landscape and the map he drew for me,” Randall told the Tribune. “That was a fun little caveat.”
When Randall found the spot, he said he could see some bones poking out of the ground’s surface.
“You couldn’t see anything else, but we kept going down and found a couple more ribs,” he said.
It was late in the summer, and after uncovering a few bones, Randall and a small team of paleontologists decided to let the sleeping giant lie through the winter before returning to excavate the remains. At the time, they weren’t even sure what they would find. They wouldn’t get back to work on it until mid-summer.
“The anticipation of it — it’s something that’s been on my mind all summer long,” Randall said. “I was optimistic, but I wasn’t trying to set myself up for disappointment either.”
Nathan Carroll, adjunct curator at the Carter County Museum, had joined Randall on his property and led the excavation. He told Randall it wouldn’t be uncommon to find only a leg bone or a rib that had survived tens of thousands of years. Instead, they were pleasantly surprised to land a big portion of the skeleton well preserved in sediment, including several ribs, leg bones, a mostly-intact skull and both tusks, about seven feet long.
“I was pretty ecstatic about that,” Randall said.
Carroll, who completed his undergrad at Montana State University and is pursuing his doctorate from the University of Southern California, is also excited, but he knows there’s much work to be done before anything can be definitively said about Randall’s mammoth.
“Something that complete is pretty rare for the area,” he said. “If you look at the date for a similar environment and basic region or basin, then you’re looking at the 10,000-to-20,000-year range. But we won’t know that until we get it dated.”
Carroll has done paleontology field work each summer since before he graduated from Carter County High School in Ekalaka in 2004, so he has a pretty good grip on the prehistoric landscape in Montana and what it has produced so far.
“It’s not the most complete mammoth in Montana,” he said. “but the really fun parts are there.”
For Carroll, Randall and the handful of volunteers Montana State University, the mammoth was well worth the labor that followed its discovery. Carroll said the bones were likely exposed last summer after a flood came through the area the year before.
“What happened here is about 20-some feet of bank had been eaten away,” he said. “Some of the floods hand changed where the bank was; that’s I think what exposed it.”
Because a flood had shifted the riverbanks so far as to nearly take the bones downstream, Carroll and the team had to build up a dam around the site and pump water away from the skeleton during the five-day dig this summer to extract the remaining bones.
“Mammoths are just fun to dig up. They’re big animals and also, when you’re trying to both dig out a mammoth and keep the groundwater from coming in, it makes it that much more challenging,” Carroll said. “Just because of what a cool find this is, combined with the intensity of the dig that had to happen under short order, this is easily one of the most challenging and exciting digs I’ve ever participated in.”
The bones are now headed to the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka, where they will undergo a preservation process that takes about a year. They will be placed in wet sand, which will suck the moisture from the bones as water drains. During this process, they’ll keep a close eye on the humidity to maintain the best conditions for keeping the bones hard, so they can someday place the skeleton in a display.
“These things have been wet for at least 10,000 years, so to let them dry out is the next big thing,” Carroll said. “These bones are not fossilized yet, they’re still young, comparatively speaking; not like dinosaur bones.”
Finding the mammoth skeleton on Randall’s property was something of a jackpot for the Carter County Museum, which is about to make a 12,000-square-foot expansion to the original building. The old stone building has been collecting remains in downtown Ekalaka, population about 330 during the 2010 census, since the 1930s, according to the museum’s website. The new expansion will more than double the museum’s existing space and while budgeting areas for exhibits in the new space, Carroll said mammoths had to be a part of the conversation.
“I knew that mammoths were part of the story we’re trying to tell at the new museum, and luckily one kind of fell in our lap,” he said. “It’s getting pretty filled up already. With the new mammoth, we’ll have a lot of beautiful new mounts to go into it.”
What Randall’s mammoth will contribute to the story is still unclear. The process is so close to discovery, Carroll said, that things such as age and sex can be confidently determined after the bones are dated once the preservation process is complete.
The other piece of luck for the museum is that Randall is willing to keep the bones in a local institution, rather than send them to a bigger one far away. Carroll said many times private landowners opt for bigger museums to take the bones, or if they’re found on federal land, they would only be sent to museums in agreement with federal agencies. In the last 10 years, the Carter County Museum has entered an agreement with federal agencies in order to receive bones from places like BLM properties. Additionally, the museum has become more active and cultivated a highly qualified staff in recent years, Carroll said, bringing more bones in the door of his hometown museum.
“I think we’re now at a stage where we have the same skill set and resources as the larger museums, and things get to stay local,” he said.
A lot of information about Columbian mammoths in this area are still unknown, Carroll said, such as the details of their demise into extinction, and adding data contribute to that story. What is known now is based mostly on the mammoths that have turned up around the Missouri River.
“We went through some pretty big changes ten-ish thousand years ago in terms of animals and landscape, and it’s not clear why that happened, so every time we get a new data point, it’s super helpful for that story,” he said.
“The cool thing about this discovery is that there is just not that many mammoths known from this region…But getting a lot of these mammoths from the Powder River area is really important because it tells us a lot about their extinction.”
And even that is in the air; Carroll is still unsure about what Randall’s mammoth can contribute to the story, albeit he seems quietly optimistic about whatever story the bones can tell. Carroll’s scholastic distinctions are in dinosaur feather features, so he’s been reaching out to some “mammoth friends,” and reading up on mammoth material. So has Randall, who listed off the time periods in which they lived and the dimensions to which they grew with some precision while he was tending cattle in his fields on Monday.
“I’ve always known there’s been some rich dinosaur history out there,” Randall said during an interview on his cell phone. “It’s kind of sparked an interest in paleontology and now I might have to spend some more weekends looking around for stuff.”
And with the skeleton he’s already found, “I want to keep it in the area. I’d love to see it at the local museums here and bring some tourism to the sparsely populated southeast Montana.”
Those factors are already at work, as the Carter County Museum already has a few of Randall’s mammoth bones, the ones excavated in 2016 after that angler first found them, on display in Ekalaka. Those bones already underwent the preservation process and have a place in the museum for the summer, along with a large set of tusks from a Columbian mammoth found in the Box Elder Creek area.
By next summer, Carroll and the Carter County Museum staff will begin putting the bones together like a prehistoric puzzle, to see what story they can find.
“I’m really excited to see what the rest of the skull and rest of the animal looks like,” Carroll said. “It’s just not that common that you get full mammoths coming out, so it’s pretty cool we were able to capture this one.”