Ranchers Own Valuable Dinosaur Fossils, Court Says

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Valuable dinosaur fossils found on a Montana ranch belong to the owners of the land’s surface rights, not the owners of the mineral rights, according to a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appeals court decision, handed down June 17, upheld a 2016 decision by a U.S. District Judge in Billings, MT, that found dinosaur fossils were part of the surface estate, not the mineral estate, in cases of split ownership.

The decision means ranchers Mary Ann and Lige Murry own the dinosaur fossils worth millions of dollars found on their ranch. The dinosaurs unearthed on the ranch include a T. rex found in 2013, a triceratops skull discovered in 2011 and the 2006 discovery of a pair of dinosaurs that appeared to have been locked in battle when they died.

The T. rex was sold for millions of dollars. The so-called dueling dinosaurs drew a bid of $5.5 million in a 2014 auction but failed to reach the $6 million reserve price. In a legal effort to clarify the ownership of the dueling dinosaurs before trying to sell them, the Murrays sought a court order saying they owned the fossils.

Following District Judge Susan Watters decision the fossils belonged to the surface rights owners, brothers Jerry and Bo Severson, who owned two-thirds of the mineral rights on property once owned by their father, appealed Watters’ decision to the 9th Circuit.

Before making its decision, the 9th Circuit asked Montana’s Supreme Court to rule on whether fossils were minerals under state law because at the time the case was filed, there was not a definitive law. In a 4-3 ruling last month, the Montana justices said dinosaur fossils are not considered minerals under state law.

“Because Mary Ann and Lige Murray are the undisputed owners of the surface estate here ... the (Montana) Supreme Court’s decision requires a resolution in their favor,” Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas wrote on behalf of himself and 10 other members of the 9th Circuit.

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