Are dinosaur fossils minerals? Over $15 million—and potentially much more—rides on the answer

A mineral extraction?
A mineral extraction?
Image: Reuters
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The Montana Supreme Court must answer a question that it’s never before faced in a case about the ownership of dueling dinosaurs discovered on private property in 2013. It will decide whether the fossils are minerals or just plain old bones, and the answer will determine who owns a find valued at more than $15 million.

The remnants of a Nanotyrannus lancensis and a Chasmosaurine Ceratopsian—experts believe they died together in a prehistoric death match—were found in the land of Mary Ann and Lige Murray in Garfield, Montana. The Murrays own the surface rights to their property but share coal, oil, and gas rights below the ground with several extraction companies. The companies claim that the fossils are a mineral extraction, and so want to share in ownership.

When the Murrays sued, however, they won. The extraction companies challenged the ruling, and the case made its way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled 2-1 this year that, legally and scientifically speaking, fossils are minerals. The Murrays challenged the holding, and a nine-judge panel from the court will review it. But first the Ninth Circuit has asked Montana’s Supreme Court to tell them whether dinosaur fossils are actually minerals in the context of a claim to a mineral estate.

Notably, state lawmakers have already passed legislation that directly addresses the question in response to this case, naming surface right owners the proper holders of title to any dinosaur bones that may be found on their land. Montana is rich with such finds. But the legislation also explicitly states that it doesn’t affect any pending cases, which means that the Murrays and the mineral companies remain locked in battle, just like the fossils whose value they so eagerly seek.

On Nov. 7, the state justices heard oral arguments. They asked the attorneys what makes a fossil, which is made up of organic material, different from oil, say. “Oil isn’t from dinosaurs, it’s from a geological process of plants, plankton, and organisms that die, go to the bottom of the ocean, [and] are pressurized with heat,” argued Harlan Krogh, a Billings, Montana lawyer representing the Murrays. “If I’m playing 20 questions with my grandchildren, and I say it’s a mineral and it ends up being a dinosaur fossil, I think they’re going to be mad.”

Krogh contends that when we think of minerals, we think of rocks, and the only way to view a dinosaur fossil as a rock is to take a “logical leap.” The judges would have to assume that a bone becomes a rock, “like a chunk of coal.” He urged the judges to rely on the “ordinary” meaning of the word mineral to answer the question.

Meanwhile, the extraction companies argued to the contrary. They pointed out that a mineral is simply any solid inorganic substance that occurs naturally and that the fossils are no different from any extraction on the land but for their unique value as historical finds.  “These are rocks, and very valuable rocks in Montana are minerals. It’s as simple as that,” countered Eric Wolff, counsel for BEJ Minerals.

The court doesn’t seem to think the question is simple, though. Some justices expressed concern that if they decide that the find on the Murrays’ land is the equivalent of a mineral, that puts all dinosaur bones in this category—which would put far more than $15 million at stake. Wolff suggested that the court rule very narrowly, but justice James Shea pushed back, asking, “What you want us to answer…‘Some are, some aren’t’?”