New law clears up who owns fossils in state

New law clears up who owns fossils in state

May 1, 2019


Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signs House Bill 229, clarifying that fossils belong to the owner of the surface rights whenever there are split estates and other people own the mineral rights to a tract of land. Also pictured, in the front row, second from the left, is Two Medicine Dinosaur Center Assistant Director Stacia Martineau, and on the far right, David Trexler, paleontologist with the Two Medicine Center in Bynum


Two Medicine Dinosaur Center researchers in Bynum are applauding Gov. Steve Bullock and the Legislature for clarifying Montana law that dinosaur fossils found on private property belong to the surface rights owners, not the mineral rights owners when there is a split estate.

Cascade legislator Bradley Hamlett, a Republican, carried House Bill 229, which passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Bullock on April 16.

Stacia Martineau, Two Medicine Dinosaur Center assistant director, said the new law will help prevent future litigation though it won’t affect the ongoing lawsuit over who owns the “Dueling Dinosaurs,” found on the eastern Montana ranch of Mary Ann and Lige Murray.

In that lawsuit, the mineral owners, Jerry and Bo Severson, sued in federal court after the fossils of the two dinosaurs that appear to have been fighting at the time of their deaths were discovered. The fossils are valued at about $6 million.

A federal judge in Montana ruled that the fossils belong to the surface estate because their composition is not what makes them valuable — their value lies in the type of fossil and their completeness. But, a federal appeals court ruled last November that the fossils are made of minerals and therefore belong to the mineral rights holders.

Hamlett told the Legislature, according to the Associated Press, that his bill was needed to prevent future litigation and to settle, at least for Montana, the question of who owns the fossils.

The purpose of the new law, as stated in the bill, “is to enact into law a presumptive understanding that fossils are not minerals and that fossils belong to the surface estate, unless conveyed by a clear and express grant.”

The law clarifies that the term “minerals” does not include fossils, and identifies fossils as remnants of animals preserved by natural processes, including fossilized remains, traces, or imprints of organisms, preserved in or on the earth’s crust.

The law is retroactive to apply to split estates where there is no ongoing litigation.

Martineau along with Center Director Cory Coverdell and paleontologist Dave Trexler made trips to Helena during the session to testify in favor of the bill. Martineau said others supporting the bill included Montana Dinosaur Trail members, landowners, commercial collectors and a wide variety of people “who love dinosaurs.”

She said the attorneys representing the Seversons were the only opponents of the bill, and they withdrew their objection once the bill was amended to exempt their ongoing litigation from its reach.

Chuck Denowh, policy director for United Property Owners of Montana, the organization that drafted the legislation, said in a news release that fossil remains, including dinosaur fossils, have historically belonged to the surface landowner in a split estate, but the appeals court ruling last year upended fossil ownership in Montana.

That ruling had the potential to create additional conflicts between surface and mineral owners, and could have clouded the title to thousands of fossils that had been purchased by museums, universities and private collectors, Denowh said.

“This was one of the most important bills we put forward this session,” Denowh said. “The court’s ruling had all sorts of unintended consequences. It was unclear if fossil sales by landowners were done lawfully. It was unclear what rights mineral owners would have to explore for fossils on the surface. This was a situation that we really needed to rectify.”

Martineau said the new law allows the nonprofit research center to go forward with contracts with landowners, allowing the center’s personnel to look for fossils on their property. Typically those agreements are hammered out in January, but the center held off until this legislation passed.

Martineau said the new law codifies their understanding of who owns fossils, and noted that the federal Bureau of Land Management follows this same principle, that fossils found on public lands belong to the public, which owns the surface rights.

“This law only applies to Montana fossils,” Martineau said, but she hopes that other states will pass legislation similar to this.

She said the Two Medicine researchers will be working on ranchland west of Choteau and in the Augusta area this summer and will spend five weeks at a camp on private property near the Canadian border.

Martineau said she thinks the law also sends a clear message to fossil researchers and commercial hunters that they have to have permission from landowners to look for fossils on their property.

She said the focus on Montana fossils may have the added benefit of bringing commercial and research fossil hunters together for a discussion on how to keep Montana fossils in state. “The most amazing thing that came out of this bill was getting commercial and academic paleo people to talk to each other,” she said. “I think everyone agrees that seeing fossils leave the state of Montana is an issue.”

In an interview in January, Coverdell said this legislation was a response to the huge values put on rare dinosaur fossils like “Sue,” the Tyrannosaurus Rex found in South Dakota. Up until the 1980s and early 1990s, he said, people didn’t think of fossils as being very valuable and there had never been a dinosaur fossil sold for more than $1 million.

Sue, however, sold for $8.2 million to the Field Museum in Chicago, and that was a turning point for commercial paleontology. “It took fossils out of the science realm and put them into the art realm” he said.

Coverdell said passage of House Bill 229 would be good for Montana, but more is needed to help keep Montana fossils here.

“Montana fossils have been stolen for the past 100, 150 years,” he said though the state has facilities including the Carter County Museum, the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, Museum of the Rockies and the Two Medicine Dinosaur Research Center that strive to collect and display Montana fossils.

Coverdell said having the new law in effect will help Montana researchers who will know they just need to deal with surface owners. Having to track down mineral rights owners would have been difficult and costly. “It’s not an easy process by any means,” he said. “Basically it’s the same things that only and gas companies and mining companies have to do. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on this research.”


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