Acres of hailed-out wheat line a two-tire dirt track winding deep into the sagebrush-covered hills near Jordan, Mont. But what waits at the end of that pasture road has weathered countless storms and is ready to make its grand reappearance.
Just over a creek bank on a sandy point, a group is huddled under a blue tent raising cans of Miller High Life over a massive hunk of plaster-encased bone.
They’ve just unearthed and flipped the skull of a Tyrannosaurus rex, the king of dinosaurs. Or, in this case, the queen. A mature female they’ve dubbed Grandma Rex that’s been resting for millennia while, at least recently, ranchers Mary Ann and Lige Murray’s cattle grazed overhead.
While everyone else is cooling off and celebrating what will end up a museum’s prized jewel, the only person sporting a cowboy hat, belt buckle, and boots is still gleefully digging away. He seems completely oblivious to the gritty sand working its way into every pore and the 100-plus degree temperatures snatching every hint of moisture from the air.
Dino cowboy finds his niche
He’s Clayton Phipps, a local rancher who’s gone from hunting arrowheads with his brother as kids to making some of the most incredible fossil finds in recent history. It’s a skill that’s earned him the name Dino Cowboy. A badge he wears with pride. “It suits me well. All I ever want to do is chase cows and find fossils,” he says as he wields the shovel he’s replaced the handle on three times, welded and worn to nearly a nub thanks to his dinosaur digging obsession.
“You couldn’t pay me to dig enough postholes to wear out a shovel. But if it’s a dinosaur, I’ll dig all day. It’s a disease,” he laughs. Phipps has long kept an eye out for bones while going about his normal ranch work. He’s been accused of riding past cattle during gathers because his eyes are glued to the ground. The teasing proved worth bearing, though, when he eventually spotted and unearthed an extremely rare Stygimoloch skull.
He sold the dragon look-alike for about a year’s wages, allowing him to try making fossil hunting and his own herd his only jobs. “I didn’t want to sell it. I would keep them all if I could, but I couldn’t afford to buy out the landowner,” Phipps says.
Neighborhood watch for dinosaurs
Phipps realized early on the value of fossils and that money was walking right off his friends’ and neighbors’ properties without their knowledge. “A T-rex tooth, for example, can sell for thousands of dollars if the condition is right,” he explains. But many people were letting fossil hunters have free range of their pastures with no compensation. They just didn’t know.
You couldn’t pay me to dig enough postholes to wear out a shovel. But if it’s a dinosaur, I’ll dig all day.” ”
Over the years Phipps gained permission to hunt fossils on many area ranches, making sure landowners got their fair cut. As his reputation and connections with paleontologists grew, his neighbors started calling when they thought they had found something. And, it turns out, there are lots of fascinating creatures lurking beneath the cattle and sage.
Grandma Rex is turning out to be top notch. She’s in the top 5 for completeness and size. The Murray’s hired Blaine Lunstad, and his wife, Michele, after finding her nose poking out at them while on a walk. But this wasn’t the first big find for the Murrays.
Dueling dinosaurs uncovered
In 2006, Phipps and his fellow hunters stumbled across something epic, a fossil that would take them from the remote hills of Montana to the posh auction houses of New York City with millions on the line. “When Clayton said he found something on our ranch I was surprised,” Mary Ann recalls. “We were under the impression there were no fossils on our side of the highway.”
It was haying season, so it took weeks before they could all get together for a better look. The tip of a femur about the size of two of Mary Ann’s fists was exposed. “I wouldn’t have known it was a fossil if I’d stepped on it,” she recalls. But Phipps knew, and within 30 minutes of digging they had a skull and more.
The digging soon began in earnest. The Murray’s, busy with ranch life, only dropped by once a week. “It kept getting more exciting every time we visited,” she says. A very old and complete Triceratops emerged. Usually bones are spread around, but this skeleton was intact, lying just as it was at death. It was a world-class find.
As Phipps dug, he soon unearthed another very complete dinosaur, a meat eater, intertwined with the herbivore. “These two lived at the same time but definitely weren’t friends,” Phipps says. When he found teeth from the tharnivore (Nanotyrannus, a small T-rex relative) lodged in the bones of the Triceratops, and discovered the carnivore’s crushed skull, he realized they likely had a hand in each other’s demise. “It went from a world class find to well beyond,” Phipps says. “When I discovered the second dinosaur I threw my hat in the air and let out a war whoop!”
T-Bones and T-Rexes
In 2006, Phipps and his fellow hunters stumbled across something epic, a fossil that would take them from the remote hills of Montana to the posh auction houses of New York City with millions on the line.
T-Bones and T-Rexes
Rare dinosaur dealings
The double fossil find was named Montana’s Dueling Dinosaurs. “This is probably the most important dinosaur specimen found in the last 100 years,” says Peter Larson, president, Black Hills Institute of Geological Research. “They’re two of the most complete Hell Creek Formation dinosaurs ever and have the context of interaction.”
Phipps and the Murrays used quite a bit of rancher ingenuity to excavate the massive fossils in huge multi-ton blocks to preserve as much context as possible to study.
But they didn’t have a home for the massive fossil. It spent its first winter on a flatbed trailer in the Murrays’ shop. They spent 7 long years trying to sell it privately so it would be available for study before agreeing to offer it at New York City auction house, Bonhams.
Dinosaurs travel to New York City
Much to the Dino Cowboy’s chagrin, he loaded up with the Dueling Dinosaurs and headed to the big city. “I feel crowded in Jordan, a town of a few hundred, so New York City lacks appeal,” he says. But for the Murrays and their family, it made for an amazing once-in-a-lifetime trip. And the cherry on top: a $7 million to $9 million estimate for the fossils.
While Phipps fielded press in the lobby of Trump Tower where the fossils were on display, dropping complex scientific dinosaur names with ease, the Murrays toured the city. Their cowboy hats drew sideways glances at every turn. In true country form, they happily struck up conversations and shared their story with curious strangers as they navigated subways and busy streets.
Mary Ann cheerfully toured, but as the auction drew near, it became a challenge to keep Lige focused on taking in the city sights. “We couldn’t drag him off the swather to see the fossils when we were digging, but now he’s all enthused,” Mary Ann teased at the Statue of Liberty while Lige fidgeted.
When auction day finally dawns, Lige stands off in a corner with Phipps while Mary Ann peruses the catalog and chats with family. The auctioneer gets the sale underway and before long the feature piece, the Dueling Dinosaurs, comes on the block.
Bidding opened at seven figures. The auctioneer methodically worked the packed and breathless room. This is no cattle sale. There is no rhythmic babble as the bid climbs in $250,000 increments. After 81 seconds slowly tick by, the bid reaches $5.5 million and stalls. Going once, going twice, and pass. The Dueling Dinosaurs failed to meet their reserve. The disappointment was palpable.
Massive investments by all involved to excavate, store, prep, and ship the fossils, are for naught. The Dueling Dinosaurs will have to go back to Montana. Fossils, it seems, are like any other crop?—?lots of inputs, and no guarantees. The Murrays will simply have to put this crop back in the bin and wait for a better market.