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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.