HELENA — The Montana University System will not buy archaeological and paleontological resources at the Milk River Ranch in northern Montana, the higher education commissioner said Thursday.
“We don’t feel like it’s in the best interest of the university system to move forward,” Commissioner Clayton Christian told the Board of Regents in Helena. “We are not seeking to move forward on this project and not seeking funds to do it.”
In November, the regents had agreed to pay $2 million to ranchers Verges and David Aageson for the rights to archeological and paleontological artifacts on part of their ranch, the Helena Independent Record reported.
The Aageson brothers had retained those rights after selling 2,992 acres to the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department for $4.7 million as part of a major $7.8 million land deal in the final weeks of the administration of Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
State Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, and Daniel Redding of Rudyard sought a temporary restraining order to stop the regents from spending the $2 million, which came from a special appropriation by the 2011 Legislature intended for university research.
They said $1.1 million of the total already had been distributed to the University of Montana and Montana State University for research projects, and the entire $2 million was specifically restricted to research activities on the campuses, they said.
A Bozeman district judge temporarily blocked the use of the remaining $900,000 of university research funds
At the regents’ meeting, Christian said that in trying to figure out how such a project would fit into the needs of students and faculty, he learned that archeological and paleontological rights are hard to value.
“I think we’re bordering on a big mistake here,” said Regent Pat Williams of Missoula.
Perhaps the regents may want to change their minds in the future under different circumstances, he said. The state already has bought the property for “a considerable amount of money” and the archeological and paleontological resources are “world-class,” Williams said.
Christian said he didn’t disagree, but added: “We just truthfully don’t have funds available at this point in time.”
Regent Jeffrey Krauss of Bozeman called it a dangerous precedent to buy the rights, when there are many other artifact collections in the area.
“It might not be as incredible as we might have guessed,” he said, adding: “We don’t buy fossils and we don’t buy collecting rights to fossils. That comes from organizations themselves.”
Williams predicted someone else would buy the rights to the fossils. Notre Dame University, whose students and professors have done a number of digs in Montana, is interested, he said.
“The Treasure State will have sold off another treasure when we have a chance to hold it,” Williams said.
“The state of Montana and university system has never had as much money as it does today. I don’t want people to say, when they had a pot of money, they let this treasure go and claimed the lack of money as a reason.”
After regents’ action Thursday, Brenden said, "If that's the position by the Board of Regents, I applaud them for it. And, I will be looking for a signed commitment from them that they won't use the Milk River Ranch for the purpose of bones and stones."
Brenden said the lawsuit remains on hold until the plaintiffs know what the final decision is from the university system and Board of Regents.
Besides the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks buying the land for a wildlife management area, the Aagesons sold an adjacent 1,513 acres to the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which will manage it for the state school trust. DNRC will lease the land back to the Aagesons to raise crops.