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Digging for dollars

Ninth District dinosaurs still have an (economic) impact.

July 1, 2001


Rosie Cataldo Staff Writer

Everyone's heard about them—the giant creatures that roamed the earth between 230 million and 65 million years ago. Kids can't read enough about them. Paleontological buffs can't visit enough museums displaying their skeletons. That's right, we're talking dinosaurs—more specifically, their fossils.

Although not many of us are in the market for a "gen-u-ine" Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil, the business of casting and selling replicas, as well as selling smaller fossils, is a growing trade in North and South Dakota and Montana, where dinosaur remains are plentiful. Both real fossils and replicas from these states have been sold around the globe, and regional tourism gets a boost from professional and amateur diggers, museumgoers and other enthusiasts.

dinosaur skeleton castWhat lies beneath the economic boom of the fossil industry is controversy regarding where they can be collected and by whom and whether a profit should be made from their discovery. Much of the dispute stems from the fact that the business of collecting fossils in the name of science is viewed completely differently from collecting them on a purely commercial basis. Commercial collecting strikes a nerve with some paleontologists, and the two groups are at odds regarding the true value and ownership of a fossil.

At the root of the industry is a growing demand for fossils, particularly dinosaur fossils, which some attribute to films like "Jurassic Park," the Discovery Channel and the media hype surrounding the discovery of a complete Tyrannosaurus Rex named "Sue." The discovery of Sue was highly controversial because of her final price tag, $8.4 million, and the issues surrounding where she was discovered.

Fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson, who was working with a commercial team from the Black Hills Institute, Hill City, S.D., a major commercial fossil collector, discovered the T. Rex Aug. 12, 1990, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation near Faith, S.D. Due to land sovereignty issues, the institute was not able to claim ownership of the tremendous fossil.

According to Marion Zenker, the institute's marketing coordinator, "Sue is an anomaly in the fossil world." Sue was found on private deeded property owned by an American Indian, said Zenker, which was in trust by the government. The institute had the landowner's verbal permission to dig and remove the skeleton, she said, and paid the landowner $5,000 for Sue. But since the land technically belonged to the government, Sue was seized by the U.S. Justice Department in 1992. After much debate, the dinosaur was returned to the Indian landowner in 1995. In the end, the landowner contracted with Sotheby's auction house to sell Sue. McDonald Corp. and Disney purchased the T. Rex for the Chicago Field Museum at a New York public action in October 1997.

For the love of science and money

Although fossils are located everywhere, this does not mean diggers can excavate a fossil wherever they choose. In the United States it is legal to dig for fossils on private land with the landowner's permission, and any fossil found on private land belongs to the landowner. A permit is required to dig on public or government-owned land. Commercial collectors say these laws are too restrictive. But some paleontologists believe the laws are too lenient because they feel only expert paleontologists should be allowed to collect fossils to ensure they are properly handled and scientifically documented.

This conflict has sharpened because fossils have become a good business opportunity for some. One such entrepreneur is Michael Triebold, owner of Triebold Paleontology Inc., an independent fossil preservation company in Valley City, N.D. Triebold has been in the fossil business for 12 years and collects on private ranches in South Dakota. "It's a hobby gone awry," he said. In the past decade, Triebold's business has been stable. "The price of fossils may be slightly less than 10 years ago—certainly there are bubbles in the market." His main customers are museums and universities, and his sales span the globe, including the United States, Japan, Australia and Canada.

To Triebold, being against the sale of a fossil is "ludicrous." He disagrees with the "extreme" paleontologists who are anti-commercialism when it comes to fossils. "Every specimen [collected] is saved from destruction by weather. There are more fossils eroding than will ever be collected by professionals and amateurs combined. They're constantly being destroyed. I have hundreds of casts ... done without taxpayers' money." Triebold argues that academics think the commercial folks cause the price of fossils to go up, "but as we know from Econ 101—supply and demand," he said.

Regarding legal issues that surround fossil excavation, Triebold thinks there has been an improvement. "I think people are being more careful about who owns what [land]. ... Not all academics are against commercial collectors. There's just a small group of extremists who want it all for themselves. Hopefully, they won't get their way," he said.

Not all commercial collectors have the same views on legal issues. Neal Larson, co-owner of the Black Hills Institute, has been in the fossil business since 1974. He believes there has been absolutely no improvement in legal issues in recent years. "There are no clear-cut guidelines. It's completely clouded now, since Sue. It's a total mess."

Currently, Larson collects on a private ranch in western South Dakota. The institute sells about 90 percent of its fossils to museums in the United States, about 9 percent to "rock shops" and 1 percent at its own retail shop. "In 1998 our sales were about $200,000, but we've done much better since then."

Larson believes the market has grown tenfold in the past 10 years, particularly international business. According to Reference USA, the institute's current estimated annual sales are $2.5 million to $5 million.

Although Sue is not displayed at the institute's museum, there is another T. Rex that Larson is most proud of. In 1992, "Stan" the T. Rex was collected by Larson in South Dakota's Harding County. The institute creates cast replicas of Stan and sells them for $100,000.

Another South Dakota commercial collector is Japeth Boyce, owner of R.J.B. Rock Shop in Rapid City, S.D. "It's a tough industry. There are so many companies competing against each other. Everyone's watching their bottom line," he said. According to Boyce, 16 Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils have been found in the Dakotas and Montana since the late 1800s.

Boyce thinks the fossil industry will "level out" with the completion of exhibits for natural history museums in Japan. Boyce said the Japanese began aggressively buying fossils around 1985, but sales have tapered off.

Totally commercial

Alongside the discovery and sale of fossils, a cottage industry of fossil hunting has developed. For $200 to $1,000 commercial fossil guides will take you on a private-land dig. Johnny Henson, owner of Dino Diggers in Baker, Mont., hopes to gross $8,000 this summer with his fossil hunting business. "Not bad as a hobby," said Henson, who hopes to attract 100 people each summer to dig on one of the 15 private ranches he has access to in eastern Montana. His best customers are teachers and professors worldwide. He connects with them via his Web site, through advertisements in paleontology magazines and word of mouth.

Albeit rare to discover a Triceratops or an Albertosaurus fossil, it is not impossible, as paleontologists will attest. Yet more commonly, the fossils the general public tend to find are worth $50 to $100. "It's possible for diggers to break even," said Henson. "A quality T. Rex tooth could go for $15,000 to $20,000. A landowner wouldn't let a person take it. They want 50 percent of the fossil's value if it's worth more than $200." Henson claims fair market value for a T. Rex skull is $2 million; a brow horn from a Triceratops could sell for about $3,000. "I don't sell any replicas," he said. "Once people know you do casting, they'd think my other fossils wouldn't be real."

Paleontologists have a bone to pick

On the flip side of the commercialism issue are people like Dean Pearson, curator at the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in Bowman, N.D., who think a dinosaur fossil is worth nothing monetarily, but scientifically it's invaluable. The noncommercial museum, which opened in 1991, has had approximately 5,000 visitors annually and displays fossils found in a 100-mile radius from Bowman. The collections are used solely for scientific study.

Pearson collects for the North Dakota Geological Survey, the Pioneer Museum and other research institutions. He feels that fossils found on federal grounds are public property and should not be commercialized. Currently, Pearson conducts research with the Smithsonian Institution, among others, to see if they can link the extinction of the dinosaurs to the asteroid impact know as Chixculub (the name of the crater site) off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

One curator who feels it's great for the public to participate in a scientifically controlled dig is John Hoganson, curator of the state fossil collection for the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. Hoganson conducts an active dig in Marmarth, N.D. "One way to use fossils from an economic standpoint is by having digs run by scientists and by displaying them in museums to attract tourists." And while Hoganson does not support some commercial fossil activity, he admits that "in Marmarth commercial collectors are spending money. ... It's pumping the local economy."

To keep tabs on fossils, Hoganson is working to establish a law to prohibit people from leaving North Dakota without registering fossils. Hoganson is also trying to establish a field law to protect against commercial collectors that are problematic for the professional and amateur community. He feels it all comes down to ethics. Collecting on "private land is one thing. I think its wrong, but I can't do anything about it." He added that what goes on the record as sold doesn't count black market fossil sales.

Because they report their findings to museums and universities, Hoganson is in favor of amateur fossil groups. He is opposed to letting commercial collectors onto public lands. "The fossils belong to all of us, and I don't think they should be making money" from the sale of fossils.

Despite the controversy surrounding the commercialism of fossils, those involved in the industry enjoy their work—with or without personal economic benefit. Boyce, the South Dakota fossil collector, said, "It's a marginal living, but it's a real kick in the pants."