Dave Bradt wasn't able to tag the trophy he got while bowhunting for elk in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in September. That's because he found the fossilized remains of an ancient sea creature, not the bull elk he was pursuing.
"I suppose now I'll see some paleontologist posing with a record-book bull elk," he joked.
Bradt, 43, said the discovery has excited his family and news of it has spread like wildfire over the Internet.
"Finally, the wife and kids are happy with what I brought home," he said of the photos he returned with. "She won't even look out the window if I get a bull elk. But she's all over this now."
The discovery happened when Bradt was just trying to stay cool.
While stopping along a small stream to splash some muddy water onto his face, he noticed what looked like ribs protruding from a rock. Thinking little of it, he went to retrieve his bow, which he had set down upstream. As he stepped up above the small waterfall he'd used, his foot moved some brush, revealing what looked like a spine made of rock. The small waterfall was flowing over the spine. Peeling back more of the brush unveiled what Bradt believed was a fossilized tail but was later identified as the creature's neck.
"He was pretty covered up," Bradt said. "I would have walked over him again if I hadn't stopped."
Bradt snapped some photos of what he had found. On his way home from the eight-day hunt, he stopped at the CMR headquarters in Lewistown, told them what he'd seen and also gave them a GPS waypoint. He later e-mailed them copies of his photos. CMR staffers investigated, took their own photos and reburied the find, carefully protecting the site to prevent the possibility of theft.
"People find stuff all the time, but this created excitement from the beginning," said Beverly Skinner, the CMR wildlife refuge specialist who first talked to Bradt. "Actually it's not rare to find dinosaur bones on the CMR. But this is a marine reptile. There haven't been many of them."
Likely a plesiosaur
Judging by the photos, Montana State University paleontologist Jack Horner said he thinks the fossil is likely a plesiosaur — a long-necked, four-finned aquatic reptile that roamed the CMR when it was part of a vast inland sea, the Cretaceous Seaway of North America -- roughly 75 million years ago. The sea extended from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. Although its boundaries fluctuated, at one time it was 1,000 miles wide and spread from Minnesota west to the Rocky Mountain Front.
Plesiosaurs would have roamed the sea much like whales today — breathing air and feeding on fish and other prey. There were several varieties, the largest of which were 40 feet long. This discovery may be of a smaller plesiosaur because it is believed to have between 19 and 26 neck vertebrae. Larger specimens could have nearly 70 neck vertebrae.
Discoveries of plesiosaurs in Montana are not extremely rare, Horner said. One plesiosaur's fossilized remains were excavated from Bureau of Land Management property near the Billings landfill. The Museum of the Rockies has a plesiosaur skull in its collection.
"If it's a plesiosaur and it's all there, it would be a very nice specimen," Horner said. "I think it is a plesiosaur."
Removing the fossil for study will be no easy task. Bradt said the bones are in the bottom of a steep-sided drainage. Horner said it appears much of the fossil is in a limestone concretion.
"It's like trying to take marshmallows out of a concrete sidewalk," he said.
Funding to remove the specimen will have to be found, as well as someone willing to study and prepare it. Because of the remote and difficult location, Horner said, a helicopter would probably be needed to remove the fossil -- an expensive proposition.
"When you find a specimen like that you want to jump up and down, but you can't," Horner said. "We paleontologists encourage everyone to have patient excitement."
But excitement has already enveloped the Bradt household. Bradt said he has talked to his family about being involved in helping dig up the fossil and they've said they're interested in dedicating their vacation to the task. His youngest son, 7-year-old Kellen, said he wants to grow up to be a "rock scientist."
"The kids go nuts," Bradt said. "They'll listen to the whole story over and over again."
Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at email@example.com or at 657-1387.