Battle over ownership of dinosaur fossils could upend paleontology research


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A dispute over the land rights on a property where several significant and valuable dinosaur fossils have been discovered could completely change how future fossil digs are run.

The fight is between the ranchers who own the surface rights to the property in question, and the owners who possess the mineral rights. The latter are claiming, and have won in federal court, that fossils are minerals and thus belong to them.

That court decision however upturned more than a century of practice, where fossils were always considered part of the surface rights only.

The ruling sent shock waves through the paleontology world, threatening to upend the way fossil hunters have operated for decades.

It would make searching for fossils extremely complicated, said David Polly, a former president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, based in Bethesda, Maryland, because paleontologists would need to navigate both surface ownership—to get to the dig location—and mineral ownership of a parcel. Often, mineral rights are hard to find and frequently change hands between large corporations.

The article says this decision could threaten previous finds, but I think that is hyperbole. On issues like this the statue of limitations would apply, and would make almost all challenges on earlier fossil finds moot.

Nonetheless, the issue is still before the courts. The federal court has decided to vacate its decision and has instead let the case shift to the state supreme court in Montana, which is expected to take up the case later this year.

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13 comments

  • Phill O

    In Canada, the federal government have removed anyone’s right to the fossils. They now belong to the government only!

  • Cotour

    I might argue that the fossils are not really a primary function of the mineral rights of the earth proper. They are a secondary function of the mineral rights and the fact that they were buried long ago but are not originally from the earths interior but are of the surface. (And I suppose that you could argue that every living thing on the planet IS a function of the earth and its mineral content, but that may be a bit too much)

    But then you could argue that although the animals are not a primary function of the earth / mineral rights the fact that they were buried sooo long ago they ARE now a primary function of the earth and its mineral rights. How were they preserved for so long? The fact that they were buried and became mineralized and are essentially stone, that they are now a function of the earth and not a function of the surface.

    And then, what about the fossil that is found revealed on the surface and the rest buried? If it were not for the surface reveal the fossil may never have been discovered. Do you now split the ownership?

    I suppose that I would have to rule that the fossils are a function of the earth and the mineral rights when push comes to shove. Who OWNS the land? The owner of the plot that owns the mineral rights and leases the surface rights to someone else. The mineral right are primary and the surface rights are secondary.

    A very interesting fossilized kettle of fish.

  • Cotour

    Canada:

    A good illustration of the difference between the two governments. The Canadian government tells all who live there, we essentially ultimately own you and all else that we say we own.

    America is different, lets keep it that way. Not much, but maybe just enough.

    Why?

    Because ultimately we all die and are returned to the earth, as Bill Barr so clearly pointed out in a recent interview. Possibly the most terrifying message ever transmitted by an attorney general of the U.S. to the former agency heads of the government. An interview that was designed to send a clear message to the now overly corrupt government players.

    And that is how you get from the issue of fossil ownership in America and the political / legal / abuse of power reconciliation that continues to approach and is almost here and will begin soon.

  • mike shupp

    Ummm … I’d argue that dinosaur bones and the like are, in a sense, artifacts like houses and cabbages and are of value/interest to people who deal with artifacts — land owners, say, and paleontologists. Whereas mining firms and other extractive industries are searching for resources which are processed to provide consumables — we don’t, as a rule, purchase tons of coal and barrels of petroleum which we mount on pedestals for admiration and bequeath to our heirs; we burn ’em up.

    On this reasoning, dinosaur bones ought to belong to people who value them as bones or for purposes which they serve as ancient bones — land owners, paleontologists, and perhaps some government agencies.

    However, it might be argued that my “reasoning” is inept and that I’m merely reciting the rationales advanced by people who are happy with the status quo. Perhaps. May I — as the occasional rogue liberal in this enlightened forum — argue that preserving the status quo would be a conservative policy, and that preserving conservative policies when there is no clear reason for altering them can be sensible behavior?

  • mike shupp: In this case we are in complete agreement.

  • wayne

    Jordan B Peterson:
    12 conservative principles in 12 minutes
    https://youtu.be/_MyduTaCh18?t=414
    12:29

    #8: “It is better to do what everyone has always done, unless you have some extraordinarily valid reason to do otherwise.”
    #9: “Radical change should be viewed with suspicion, particularly in a time of radical change.”

  • Phill O

    There is a lot of money here. Remember Ammonites and the ammolite gems.

  • Edward

    The 9th Circus Court of Appeals ruled this? How typical. They are court jesters.

    The reason that they are noted as a court of appeals is that they are the most overturned appellate court. Really. They are.

    They are a pack of idiots. The government sends their stupid judges to this court, and once again they earn these judges earn their appalling reputation.

    How they could possibly think of fossils as minerals is beyond me — unless they misunderstand the term “fossil fuel.” The next thing we know, they will rule that Indian remains are also minerals and can be used as fuel or in construction, but certainly they will not belong to their descendants.

  • pzatchok

    From what I understand the states differ but essentially the “surface” of a piece of land is considered 0 to 10 feet down.

    That way anything found digging a standard basement is considered the land owners.
    Below that the ownership can be split off from the surface and sold separately. These are the standard mineral rights. Natural gas, coal and oil for starters.

    I have read of an amateur geologist who found a geode in his back yard. Since it was less than 10 feet down hundreds of thousands in semiprecious minerals were his. He used this cash to buy the mineral rights to his own land and then “discovered” a larger geode attached to the smaller one that extended down below the 10 foot level. Millions were all his.

    As for fossil discoveries. It has been generally upheld that as long as the initial discovery was made in good faith and found “on the surface” any attached pieces were considered part of the whole and part of the surface. Thus owned by the surface land owner.

    The 9th overturned 100 years of accepted precedent, accepted the world over no less, and changed everything because of the word ‘mineral’.

    If the decision is upheld I hope the people who found it and extracted it and preserved it bill the new owners for all the time effort and materials to bring the fossil out.
    The bill for all the work could be far more than the fossil brings at auction.

  • Cotour

    Pzat:

    The ten foot rule seems a rational legal line of definition to be drawn between “surface” and “mineral” rights. And any reasonably determined contiguous or associated bones that run exposed from the surface to below the surface seem to me to be of the surface, and then the ten foot rule might apply (?). Ultimately the legal ownership of such material could get very complicated.

    PS: Fossils are by definition post living mineralized bones many millions of years old, a natural process of the earth. So if the term “Mineral” has any meaning in the context of this discussion fossils might well be by definition considered minerals.

  • wayne

    pzatchok –
    -unless I am mistaken, there is a no ’10 foot rule.’ (I can only speak authoritatively for the State of Michigan however.)

    “Minerals” have a legal definition, and the rights associated with such have a long history in the US. (Goes back to the Homestead Act and prior.) Each State has their own regulations but they all follow the same general pattern.

    brief primer on Mineral Rights
    https://geology.com/articles/mineral-rights.shtml

    “In most countries of the world, all mineral resources belong to the government. In the United States and a few other countries, ownership of mineral resources was originally granted to the individuals or organizations that owned the surface. These property owners had both “surface rights” and “mineral rights.” This complete private ownership is known as a “fee simple estate.” “Fee simple is the most basic type of ownership. The owner controls the surface, the subsurface and the air above a property. The owner also has the freedom to sell, lease, gift or bequest these rights individually or entirely to others.”

    That having been said– when you start dealing with the EPA or any archeological sites, Statism runs rampant and centuries of settled law get upended.

  • pzatchok

    My only experience is in trying to find who owned the mineral rights to land my family owns in Texas and Ohio.

    We own and now lease out the natural gas rights in Ohio but do not have the mineral rights in Texas sadly.

    Water rights out west are a whole different peck of trouble.
    Always investigate the water rights you have if you plan on owning land out west. The EPA has taken a totalitarian view of any and all water in the US. They think they own it all.

  • wayne

    pzatchok –
    Good stuff!
    -In Michigan, the majority of mineral rights were sold off by land owners during the 1920’s/1930’s. (We still produce quite a bit of oil & natural gas, mainly in the northern lower peninsula.)
    -In general, if you look at your Title Insurance Policy for your land, utility & road right-of-ways, and mineral rights will be noted.

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