EDGAR — After driving through one of the miles of barbed-wire fence Jack Owen built in his younger days, he piloted the white flatbed truck downhill and back in time about 110 million years.
As the truck’s tires flattened the roadway’s new spring growth, the smells of sagebrush and wild onion floated through the air. Meadowlarks sang from atop the brush before winging low as the pickup came to a stop.
“Let’s go find something,” Owen said after attaching a holstered 9 mm semi-automatic pistol to his belt, placing a lock blade knife in his back pocket and picking up an ice-climber’s axe.
Within 10 feet he stabbed the sharp end of the axe at a shiny, smooth pink stone poking out of the hard-packed clay soil. Owen identified it as a gastrolith, one of the stones ground smooth in a dinosaur’s gizzard, a way to help the animals digest a meal.
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“It’s a bad habit walking around with your nose to the ground,” he said.
Wearing Wrangler jeans, new black logging boots and a beat-up baseball cap, Owen’s 6-foot-plus frame seemed more suited to the work of fence building than dinosaur fossil hunting. Yet a specimen he discovered on an area ranch in 2013 had recently sold at Christie’s Auction House in New York City for $12.4 million.
Advertised simply as “The Raptor,” the incomplete skeleton of Deinonychus antirrhopus sold on May 12 for much more than the $4 million to $6 million the auction house had predicted. Deinonychus is Greek for “terrible claws.” The small dinosaur, about 7 feet long, carried the knife-sharp weapons on its hands and feet.
The first one was found by Barnum Brown in 1931 on the Crow Reservation south of Billings, but was never studied or classified. It wasn’t until Yale University scientist John Ostrom found other claws along the base of the nearby Pryor Mountains that he learned about the Barnum fossil, studied it, and came up with the name.
“That’s the second world-class one I’ve found,” Owen said of The Raptor.
The other “world-class” dinosaur he found in 2008, an 18-foot Tenontosaur, nicknamed “Clover the Fighter” because the tip of its tail had been bitten off and healed over. Except for that missing part, the dinosaur was completely intact. The name Tenontosaurus means tendon reptile, many of which can still be seen fossilized, running along the animal’s backbone like heavy wiring.
“If you’re really careful, you can see tendons as fine as horse hairs,” Owen said.
Clover may have lost the end of its tail to a relative of the Deinonychus Owen found, since they both roamed what was then a swampy area. Back in those days of the Early Cretaceous (145 to 101 million years ago), this badland prairie — punctuated by the steep rise of the snowy Beartooth Mountains to the west — would have been more like a Florida swamp or a large delta.
Adelphi University researcher Mike D’Emic found fossils from the same era on federal lands near the Pryor Mountains, including an early T-rex-like large carnivore named Acrocanthosaurus.
Probably more well-known to the followers of fossil discoveries is the Hell Creek Formation, visible in Eastern Montana and the Dakotas. These fossils are much younger, from around 65 to 70 million years ago, also known as the Late Cretaceous.
Dinosaur fossils selling for millions of dollars seems to be more frequent these days.
“We were gobsmacked that Sue sold for $8 million, and we’ve seen it go up,” said Greg Liggett, a paleontologist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Montana/Dakota Field Office.
Sue is a Tyrannosaurs rex, the most complete ever found, which was purchased by Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History in 1997. The 67-million-year-old fossil was found near Faith, South Dakota, in 1990.
Stan, another T-rex from South Dakota, was sold to a United Arab Emirates collector in 2020 for $31.8 million.
“As a researcher, it’s always frustrating when specimens leave the public domain, especially these high-profile, high-quality materials,” Liggett said. “If you can’t get to it, it essentially does not exist as anything useful to science.
“I know of other cases — fantastic specimens unique to science — and you just have to say, ‘Well, I hope we find another one.’”
The so-called Dueling Dinosaurs unearthed by Clayton Phipps, of Jordan, Montana, sold to a nonprofit for $6 million in 2020. The nonprofit gave the entwined T-rex and Triceratops to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Liggett said it’s great the specimens ended up in a public museum where they can be studied, but noted there are few museums that can afford such a high price tag.
“So what we’re seeing in general is the commercial outfits collecting for profit have more and more focus on private lands,” Liggett said. “I have heard from colleagues that private land used for research has been closed” because of exclusive deals with commercial hunters.
Any fossil collected on public land has to remain available to the public, he noted. Liggett approves about 70 to 100 permits annually, mostly to universities, for work in Montana and North Dakota. Nationwide, he said the BLM issues about 400 permits a year with Utah and Wyoming topping the list for most popular states.
“So there’s a lot going on,” he said.
Liggett can’t fault landowners for wanting to make a buck, noting it’s their property to do with as they wish. Especially since ranching and farming can be such hardscrabble work, with the profit margin sometimes slim to nonexistent.
“There’s a dark side to it, like everything else,” Owen said, adding that he’s had fossils stolen from his digs, and knows of others who have been robbed.
He’s tried to get university academics involved with his finds, but most want nothing to do with amateurs like him, Owen said.
Although a $12.4 million price tag sounds lucrative, Owen said not much of it landed in his pocket or that of the landowner.
“A lot of this stuff, I never know where it ends up,” he said. “People see that $12.4 million and think they can make a lot of money doing this. You can’t. It’s feast or famine, usually famine.”
The landowner Owen works with sold The Raptor to a broker when it was still in the ground. The broker did the cleaning, mounting and added in casts to make the dinosaur look complete, a long and time-consuming task.
“A lot of guys get wrapped up in the money,” Owen said, but not him. “It’s not about the finding, it’s about the hunt.
“It gets real addictive doing this.
“I’d been looking for this animal for years,” he said, noting the first sign of it was a little pencil-sized protrusion 40-feet up the side of a steep hill. He had to dig toe and hip holes into the dirt to make the first tenuous scrapings and discover what lay beneath.
“I knew the first four hours into it what it was,” he said, adding that 22 other fossils have come from the same canyon in the past 16 years, 13 of them raptors.
“It’s prolific,” he said. “There’s Cretaceous mammals, crocodiles … a whole system.”
Owen said he’s even found nesting sites with baby animals. Sometimes when he unearths a fresh find, he claimed to be able to smell the swamp and feel grease still coating the bones. If he’s careful in peeling away layers, he’ll see the temporary impression of a fern leaf before it vanishes.
Now pushing 70-years-old and recovering from a battle with cancer that sapped his strength, Owen sounded philosophical. He quit rifle and bowhunting because he can no longer kill animals and he talked lovingly of his dogs, past and present.
During his fossil hunts, Owen has encountered black bears and grizzlies, and said if it came down to killing a bear or being mauled, he’d take the mauling. The pistol is for rattlesnakes, which he detests. The largest he’s killed measured 52 inches, had 16 buttons on its tail and horn-like features on its head.
“We find things out here that aren’t supposed to be here,” he said, noting his wife Roberta often helps him, as did his daughter years ago.
Pausing to rest and wipe the sweat pouring off his forehead, Owen gazed wistfully across the green countryside where bright blossoms of orange Indian paintbrush bloomed beneath the exposed clay cliffs banded with gray, brick red and black rock layers.
“There’s more questions than answers out here, that’s what’s neat about it,” he said.
Considering the dinosaur fossils he’s unearthed, it’s surprising to hear what discovery Owen values the most – an obsidian Clovis point he found as a 14-year-old youngster. Back then he was paddling rivers and exploring the woods of his home state of Missouri in a Huck Finn-like existence.
Easing out of his reverie, Owen told a joke: There was a paleontologist who asked an old rancher if he would mind if they hunted for dinosaurs on his property. “Sure,” the rancher said. “Go ahead.” Then the dinosaur hunter asked if the rancher had ever found one. The rancher squinted his eyes thoughtfully and said, “It’s been awhile since I cut a fresh track.”