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Montana ranchers face off over dueling dinosaurs

dinosaur bones

Who owns these old bones?

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision on Tuesday reversing a U.S. District Court’s summary judgment in favor of Lige and Mary Ann Murray, owners of a Montana ranch, who brought the action seeking a declaratory judgment that dinosaur fossils found on the ranch belonged to them as owners of the surface estate.

In 2005, prior to the discovery of the fossils, Jerry and Robert Severson, the previous owners of the ranch, sold their surface and one-third of the mineral estate to the Murrays. But the Seversons expressly reserved the remaining two-thirds of the mineral estate, according to the court documents in Mary Ann Murray; Lige M. Murray v. BEJ Minerals LLC; RTWF LLC.

In 2006, an amateur paleontologist uncovered the well-preserved fossils of the “Dueling Dinosaurs” on the ranch, triggering a dispute regarding the true owner of the dinosaur fossils — preserved as engaged in mortal combat — and several other dinosaur fossils, including a nearly intact Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, one of only 12 ever found.

“These fossils are now quite valuable,” the appellate court said in its ruling.

No kidding. Although the Dueling Dinosaurs have not yet been sold, they were appraised at between $7 million and $9 million, while the Murray T. Rex was sold to a Dutch museum in 2014 for several million dollars — the proceeds of which were held in escrow pending the litigation outcome, according to court documents.

The appellate court found that definitions of mineral found in Montana statutes, like dictionary definitions, were contradictory and therefore inconclusive. In addition, the appellate court held that the Montana Supreme Court has generally adopted a legal test for determining whether a particular substance was a mineral in the context of deeds and agreements regarding mineral rights to land and that under this test, the dinosaur fossils, which were rare and exceptional, were minerals pursuant to the terms of the deed and belonged to the owners of the mineral estate.

The appellate court remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion, from which there was one dissenter. Circuit Judge Mary H. Murguia said she would hold that the District Court correctly concluded that dinosaur fossils do not fall within the ordinary and natural meaning of minerals as that term was used in the mineral deed in this case, and would have affirmed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment for the Murrays.

It's a Jurassic world.

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