70 Million Year Old Dinosaur saves US Agriculture
Many farmers and growers in Europe and the USA are facing tough times as changes to agricultural support payments and reduced subsidies take effect. During the 1970s and 1980s farmers received extensive support from Governments, they were encouraged to become more efficient and to increase production. Now things have changed and the emphasis is on world prices for agricultural commodities and payments to support environmental initiatives.
Farmers have seen their incomes fall, and to help increase their revenues many have diversified, moving away from raising livestock and growing crops into all sorts of enterprises such as Bed & Breakfasts, maize mazes and other tourist attractions.
For the ranchers on the bad lands of Montana and South Dakota they have another potential source of revenue – Dinosaurs!
The enthusiasm for quality dinosaur fossils from museums and the numerous private collectors has led to an alarmingly increase in the prices paid for fossils. With their cattle peacefully grazing over what is the Hell Creek geological formation, some ranchers have taken to selling the dinosaur fossils they find on their lands or even opening up their farms to “Dinosaur Tourism”. Helped by the likes of “Paleo Pete” – Peter Larson and his team from the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research many ranchers have shed their reserve and welcomed visitors to view and purchase their finds. The Hell Creek formation dates from the very end of the Cretaceous period and has provided many prehistoric animal fossils. As well as fish, turtles and Crocodilians the formation has also yielded many dinosaur specimens such as duck-bills, Ankylosaurs and Ceratopids.
The really big bucks can be earned if a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil is unearthed. However, with the big money can come big problems. Pete Larson knows all about the disputes over ownership and fossil rights that can arise. His team were responsible for the finding of the most complete and largest T. rex known to date. This fossil nicknamed “Sue” after Sue Hendrickson who first discovered it, was at the centre of a fierce dispute over ownership. The fossil was forcibly removed from the Black Hills Institute by the FBI as part of a legal dispute that lasted many years. “Sue” was eventually auctioned at Sotherby’s in October 1997 for the sum of $8.36 million dollars.
With big prices being paid for the best finds, some of the ranchers are able to support their farming activities by selling fossils or by taking a percentage of the profits made on sales of specimens recovered from their land.
“Paleo Pete” Peter Larson with a T. rex Skull
Picture courtesy of David Noble/Greg Latza
Some ranchers have adopted a very unorthodox approach to making money from palaeontology. One of the team members at Everything Dinosaur recalls a story being about a rancher who was offering tourists the chance to work on the excavation of dinosaur at a dig site on his land. We don’t know whether the story is true or apocryphal but parties of excited tourists would arrive at the site, work all day, carefully picking away at the matrix surrounding the specimen with brushes and small picks. Then in the evening the proprietor would cover up the fossil once more, in readiness for the next day’s excavation.
It must be a funny way to earn a living, but when the land around you is only suitable for grazing livestock, yet underneath your feet there may be an extremely valuable dinosaur awaiting discovery…