A court has ruled in an epic duel: Dinosaur fossils aren’t minerals under state law, a divided Montana Supreme Court said Wednesday. The decision has implications in an ongoing legal battle over the ownership of millions of dollars of fossils unearthed on an eastern Montana ranch. (See “Dueling Dinosaurs in Court.”)
Lige and Mary Ann Murray own the surface rights and one-third of the mineral rights of the ranch near Jordan. Brothers Jerry and Bo Severson each own a third of the mineral rights on the ranch once owned by their father.
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.
Before trying to sell the remarkable fossil, the Murrays claimed ownership. But the Seversons disagreed. They said they still held majority ownership because the fossils were “minerals,” like oil, or gold, or iron ore—resources generally mined as minerals from a property.
That’s what caused the human duel. The two parties have been to court multiple times over the last few years. A federal judge first said the fossils were the Murrays’. An appeals court overturned that ruling in 2018, saying, “No, they belong mostly to the Seversons.”
The Murrays appealed again. The Montana Supreme court says the dinosaurs are not covered under mineral rights but under surface rights—who owns the surface of the land. In this case, that’s the Murrays.
The case is still not over, however. It’s going back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. A date hasn’t been set. It seems the distinction between surface and mineral rights is as clear as the mud the dinos fought to the death in.
(The “Dueling Dinosaurs” fossil is displayed in New York. The fossil is at the center of an ongoing court case about right of ownership. AP Photo/Seth Weinig, File)