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Court to decide the fate of iconic dinosaur fossils in ownership dispute

The Montana Supreme Court is currently deciding a lawsuit that could leave the matter of ownership of many famous museum fossil collections up for debate. 

It all started with a goldmine of dinosaur fossils, the Hell Creek Formation, which spans parts of Montana, the Dakotas, and Wyoming. The Hell Creek Formation is rich with fossil deposits, and some of the greatest dinosaur discoveries in the world have been dug up there. 

In 2006, an amateur fossil hunter unearthed a “spike cluster” of fossils on a tract of land in Garfield County, Montana, and within that cluster were two intact fossils of a pair of dinosaurs that appeared to be locked in battle. 

This fossil is now known as the “Dueling Dinosaurs” and provides one of the most detailed looks at a predator-prey interaction between dinosaurs to date. 

But now, the matter of who owns one of the most important fossil finds of the century is being decided by the Supreme Court after a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that fossils were minerals. 

Fossils were previously considered part of the surface rights, separate from the land’s mineral rights. But if the Supreme Court rules in favor the Circuit Court of Appeals, it could completely upend the how paleontologists conduct excavations and lead to more ownership lawsuits. 

The land in Garfield County was initially owned by George Severson who leased his land to Mary Ann and Lige Murray. The Murrays acquired ownership of the surface rights to the property in 2005, but the Seversons kept the mineral rights. 

It was the Murrays who owned to the surface rights when the Dueling Dinosaurs were discovered. Since then other remarkable finds have been found in the area including a complete T. rex which the Murrays wanted to sell to a Dutch Museum. 

The fossils are worth millions and the Seversons filed a lawsuit to declare ownership of all the fossils found on the property even though they didn’t have the surface rights. 

The Circuit Court ruled in favor of the Seversons after which the paleontological community was sent into a frenzy to appeal the decision. 

The Supreme Court will likely decide in favor of the Murrays, but there is still uncertainty about where the Court stands in this major lawsuit. 

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer 

Image Credit: Tim Evanson/Flickr

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