Fossil hunter digs up more controversy
By KIM SKORNOGOSKI • Tribune Staff Writer • October 5, 2008
This summer, fossil hunter Nate Murphy and his crew carefully unearthed three stegosaurus skeletons discovered on a ranch near Grass Range.
Unlike his past dinosaur digs — including the one that unearthed Malta’s famed mummy duckbill, Leonardo — Murphy’s finds aren’t destined for a Montana museum.
The nonprofit Judith River Dinosaur Foundation, which is affiliated with Malta’s new Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, cut ties with Murphy in July 2007, after state and federal agents began investigating him for allegedly stealing dinosaurs. Last month, he was charged in Phillips County District Court with stealing a turkey-sized raptor.
However, through his private company, the Judith River Dinosaur Institute, Murphy continues to recruit volunteer scientists along with amateur fossil fans who shell out $1,600 each to spend a week digging by his side.
Some paleontologists fear that he is drawing a fuzzy line with the name of his company. They say it could mislead private landowners who allow fossil hunters on their property with the intent that any dinosaurs discovered be displayed in a Montana museum.
“I think a lot of people are still confused,” said Bob Bakker, paleontologist and curator of the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, which currently hosts Leonardo. “You can’t continue to have a for-profit operation with the smokescreen of a nonprofit organization.
“Good-hearted people are donating their time and pay a fee for the privilege of digging — that’s reprehensible to have a name like that. There’s nothing wrong with running a commercial operation, but they have to be very clear about what they do,” Bakker added.
Murphy says his intention always is to keep his finds in Montana.
He recently bought a warehouse in Billings and is working to create a new Dino Lab, much like the converted garage he operated at the Dinosaur Field Station in Malta. Murphy said his plan is to eventually keep the stegosaurus finds there.
Grass Range rancher David Hein, whose family owns the land where the stegosaurus skeletons were found, wouldn’t detail his arrangement with Murphy, but said he is confident the dinosaurs will stay in the state.
“We have found Nate to be very honest and honorable in all his dealings with us,” Hein said. “We consider him a friend.”
Malta ranchers JoAnn and Howard Hammond had similar opinions of Murphy for the 16 years he brought dig crews onto their land. Once they learned of the criminal allegations, the Hammonds betrayed, they said, and tried to warn other landowners.
Grass Range rancher Merril Klakken said the Hammonds’ worries didn’t concern him, so he let Murphy dig on his land in the summer.
“When we made the agreement, the bones were to go to the Judith River Foundation in Malta and remain there,” Klakken said. “Now, when we saw him this summer, Nate said he had a warehouse lined up in Billings to take these bones to. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The fossils found on Klakken’s property are stored in his shed, but they belong to Murphy by contract. Klakken will get 10 percent of any money made from replicas.
Sue Frary, the director of programs and exhibits at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum, said any claims that fossils found by Murphy and his commercial customers will go to Malta are false.
“We would not accept any fossils from him, nor do we have any affiliation with him,” she said. “We do realize that he’s continuing his dig programs, but we have no idea where those fossils are going.”
In the current criminal case, prosecutors allege that Murphy lied about where he found a rare raptor, which is estimated to be worth between $150,000 and $400,000.
Prosecutors say Murphy told paleontologists two stories: first, that he found the raptor in Saco and, later, that it was hidden under a fossilized turtle found on the Hammonds’ land and was discovered in the lab.
The original location of the raptor fossil is important because, in the United States, whoever owns the land, owns the dinosaur.
Court documents state that Murphy shipped the raptor to the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota to have molds and casts made.
Bakker said commercial sellers can make far more money from replicas than from selling the original fossils.
On his company’s Web site, Murphy writes that he is working to create a new nonprofit organization, the Little Snowy Mountain Dinosaur Project, where people could send tax deductible donations to get the new Dino Lab up and running.
“Because he was forced out of Malta after having done everything for those people up there, he’s starting all over again,” Hein said.
Most of Murphy’s great finds draw crowds to Malta’s new museum, which opened in June. The dinosaur that made him famous, the duckbill Leonardo, now stars in a year-long special exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences and is the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary.
Leonardo is considered the world’s best preserved dinosaur because his skin and organs — even his last meal — are intact. Scientists believe he could hold answers to questions about what the world was like 77 million years ago.
Murphy said Leonardo’s fame made Murphy the target of paleontologists who questioned his credentials because he doesn’t have a doctorate. It also made people start seeing dollar signs.
“I do what I love to do — it’s never been about money,” he said. “Even though, later on, other people put price tags on these dinosaurs, I’ve never cared about the money.”
Depending on who’s telling the story, Murphy either volunteered or was pushed to sign over his partial ownership of all the fossils found on the Hammonds’ land from his private institute to the similarly named nonprofit foundation.
Murphy said he learned his lesson and now he specifies in his contracts with landowners before he begins digging that he has controlling interest in the specimens.
In dinosaur and ancient antiquity hotspots such as China, Egypt, Israel and Mongolia, any fossils or artifacts found belong to the people of the country.
Other countries such as Argentina are more of a free market, with dinosaur hunters and nonprofits battling in court to claim valuable finds.
While there isn’t a state law dictating who owns fossils found in Montana, a federal judge has laid out the rules all paleontologists and commercial diggers must follow across the country.
A fierce court battle stemmed from the discovery of one of the largest Tyrannosaurus — and the most complete — ever discovered. It was named Sue after the amateur paleontologist who found it in 1990, in South Dakota’s Hell Creek Formation.
The Black Hills Institute excavated the fossil, which was found on Indian reservation land, and paid the landowner $5,000 so the institute could keep it.
Peter Larson, a commercial dealer with the South Dakota institute, spent two years cleaning and restoring the bones until a U.S. attorney charged that the fossil was taken illegally from land held in trust by the U.S. Department of the U.S. interior.
A dozen FBI agents and National Guard soldiers raided the company’s workshop in 1992, and seized Sue, keeping the skeleton in crates until the lawsuit was resolved.
A federal judge decided that whoever owns the land — be it the state, the federal government or a private party — owns whatever fossils are found in the ground.
Sue later sold at auction for nearly $8 million, opening the door to high-dollar dinosaur dealing.
Given the state and federal investigation of Murphy, Judith River Dinosaur Foundation board members feared court wrangling similar to that over sue could occur over Leonardo.
According to the court documents charging Murphy with stealing the turkey-sized raptor, he arranged with the Hammonds to equally split ownership of all discoveries on their property.
With the investigation looming, the foundation scrambled to switch ownership of Leonardo and several other fossils from Murphy’s company to the foundation.
“It was a bit like getting divorced, and the fear was that the fossil would get tied up in the divorce,” said Joe Iacuzzo, Murphy’s former business partner. “We heard wild estimates that Leonardo would sell for $1 million to $10 million.”
While Leonardo is in Houston, the allegedly stolen raptor, which is considered evidence in the pending felony case, is being kept safe in a locked state evidence locker.
Though officials with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office can’t talk about an investigation until charges are filed, witnesses involved in the case say they believe the charges involving the raptor are just the beginning.
“It’s not just the raptor, it was others too,” Bakker said. “The federal investigation is much bigger.”
Murphy first got tangled up with the law in 1994, when he found a hadrosaur brachylophosaurs, named Elvis, 35 miles north of Malta, on federal Bureau of Land Management property. With a storm rolling in, Murphy shored up the dirt above the exposed bones and covered the fossil until he could return with an official.
He was fined $500 for tampering with a historic specimen.
Montana paleontologists fear that landowners will be reluctant to allow scientists on their property to hunt for fossils because Murphy has long had a reputation as a respected fossil hunter who volunteers his time to discover and protect Montana’s Jurassic jewels.
Bynum-area paleontologist David Trexler, whose family found Montana’s other major dinosaur discovery known worldwide as Egg Mountain, considered Murphy a friend and compatriot in the mission to find and keep dinosaurs in the state.
Trexler and Murphy developed a code of ethics for professional and amateur diggers, hoping to guide fossil hunters to develop good relationships with landowners and follow responsible digging practices.
“He talked the talk and, to me and a lot of others, he seemed to walk the walk,” Trexler said. “Come to find out, he set up the rules for everybody else.”
Trexler and Bakker both advise landowners to check references and make sure that fossil hunters work for nonprofits before signing any contracts.
“It’s sad, but the days of the handshake and you’re as good as your word are going away,” Trexler said. “I’m hoping that the focus will help landowners understand the differences between someone who says ‘I’m a paleontologist and I want to collect dinosaurs,’ and someone who says ‘I can make you a whole bunch of money.'”
Trexler added that he hopes the charges and pending federal investigation of Murphy will encourage the Legislature and Montana’s federal congressional delegation to license and regulate fossil hunting.
He also would like to see changes in the law to give states the first opportunity to buy fossils found on private land that are then put up for sale.
When Trexler first started in paleontology, two dinosaurs found in Montana could be seen in the state. He’s made it his life’s goal to build the Dinosaur Trail — a series of small-town museums dotting the Hi-Line — to benefit the communities where the dinosaurs were found.
It’s the potential impact of Murphy’s charges on the Dinosaur Trail and efforts to continue that work that worry him the most.
“I really, really worry about the damage,” Trexler said. “I know the folks in Malta are not going to be hurt over the long term. But is this going to hurt the Dinosaur Trail? Is this going to offset the good that Leonardo is going to do? Is this going to lure more commercial diggers here?
“Obviously there are going to be repercussions. I just hope they’re not too severe,” he added.
Reach Tribune Staff Writer Kim Skornogoski at 791-6574, 800-438-6600 or email@example.com.
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Articolo tratto da www.greatfallstribune.com (link)
Rare fossil found near Browning may be auction’s top draw
Raising concerns about the loss of scientifically significant fossils, a rare juvenile duckbill dinosaur found in the Two Medicine Formation near Browning is the top item at a private auction in Dallas on Sunday.
The second annual Natural History Auction of the Heritage Auction Galleries features more than 390 lots including dinosaurs, the only meteorite known to have killed a living being, a wolf skull dating back to the Ice Age and a piece of the moon.
The item getting the most attention and most likely to bring the highest price and is a nearly complete juvenile duckbill skeleton found in the spring of 1990 on the Agee Ranch. The skeleton has no current online bids, but the auction house hopes it will sell for $240,000 to $300,000.
“That particular specimen is at least a gray-market, if not a black-market specimen,” said David Trexler, a paleontologist with the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum. “It could have been a museum exhibit if it had been collected appropriately. The sad thing is that it’s basically a $150,000 lawn ornament.”
Heritage Auction Galleries spokesman Bruce Bobbins said the person who previously owned the skeleton and its discoverer want to remain anonymous.
What the auction house can say about the dinosaur is that it was found in the spring of 1990.
The juvenile was laying on its side near another juvenile Edmontosaurus and a partially complete adult, according to the auction house. Bobbins said auction officials theorize the dinosaur family was crossing a river that suddenly swelled.
Looking at the photo of the duckbill, Trexler suspects it’s a Maiasaura, similar to what was found on Egg Mountain. Maiasaura are the only duckbills with crests on their foreheads, and the level of the formation on the Agee Ranch is from the era when Maiasaura, not Edmontosaurus, roamed Montana, he said.
Trexler said the dinosaur could have been scientifically significant. While many duckbill babies, adults and teenagers have been discovered — several by his family on Egg Mountain — few have been found that are the age and size of the juvenile up for auction.
The 10-foot-long, 5 1/2-foot-wide skeleton was 90 percent complete — another rarity in the paleontology world.
However, because it wasn’t properly excavated, with documentation of where it was found and the environment surrounding it, science can learn little from the fossil, Trexler said.
The lack of documentation also raises concerns that it might have been obtained illegally, he said.
Trexler said the only juvenile duckbill discovery he was aware of during that time period was allegedly stolen off the Blackfeet Reservation. He heard a report of a juvenile duckbill that was 10-feet-long being discovered, but when he went to the site on tribal land, it was gone.
A federal court decision out of South Dakota dictates the ownership of dinosaurs. Basically, anything found on private land belongs to the landowner and anything found on state or federal land can be claimed by a state museum or no one at all.
For example, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council recently decided to try to sell a 74-million-year-old baby Tyrannosaurus, hoping to stave off budget shortfalls. That specimen has not yet been sold.
The federal court ruling causes many important finds to become worthless because they are either washed away on public lands because there aren’t enough paleontologists or museum resources to collect them, or they are improperly excavated by commercial diggers.
To properly excavate and mount a fossil costs about $350,000, according to Trexler. Museums can afford to pay the costs because the exhibit can cover the expense. To sell any fossil for the price that private collectors are willing to pay means cutting corners during excavation, he said.
But as evident from the fact that no one has placed the minimum $143,000 bid for the juvenile duckbill on the Heritage Auction Galleries Web site, the commercial market for dinosaurs is small.
“Dinosaurs aren’t worth the millions of dollars that people think they are,” Trexler said. “There’s only so much that people can reasonably afford to pay to have something in their living room.”
Reach Tribune Staff Writer Kim Skornogoski at 791-6574, 800-438-6600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Articolo tratto da: Associated press
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — A senior U.S. Homeland Security official is in Argentina to discuss money laundering, human trafficking — and dinosaur eggs.
Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Monday that she plans to hand over to Argentina’s government a cache of more than 8,100 pounds (3,675 kilograms) of fossils seized two years ago by ICE agents at a gem and mineral show in Tucson, Arizona.
The fossils — including an unspecified number of dinosaur eggs, shell fragments, petrified pine cones and fossilized prehistoric crabs — had been illegally removed from Argentina and offered for sale in the United States, according to an ICE statement.
“We think these historical artifacts rightly belong to the people of Argentina, so I’m very proud to be able to formally hand them back,” Myers said. She called the fossils “pieces of a country’s history that people are trying to put up for sale.”
Experts believe the fossils date from an era between 180 million and 250 million years ago, the agency noted.
Details of a midweek, handover ceremony were still being worked out, with plans to fly the fossils to Argentina shortly, Myers’ office said.
Myers then plans to visit Uruguay and Brazil, to discuss money laundering and efforts to crack down on networks that traffic women and children for prostitution rings and forced labor.
A special immigration unit created to track alleged human rights violators from foreign nations is continuing to aggressively pursue individuals who seek refuge in the U.S., Myers said.
U.S. immigration officials last October escorted a former Argentine army officer, Ernesto Guillermo Barreiro, on a flight from the U.S. to his homeland, where he was wanted for alleged abuses during the country’s 1976-83 military dictatorship.
“Our goal is to make sure the United States is not a safe haven for human rights violators,” Myers said.