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Montana Legislature clarifies ownership rights of fossils

March 22, 2019
FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2013 file photo, one of two "dueling dinosaur" fossils is displayed in New York. Ownership of two fossilized dinosaur skeletons found on a Montana ranch in 2006 are the subject of a legal battle over whether they are part of a property's surface rights or mineral rights. The 2019 Montana Legislature on Friday, March 22, 2019, passed a law clarifying that fossils are part of the surface rights unless a contract says otherwise. The law does not affect the court case. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 14, 2013 file photo, one of two "dueling dinosaur" fossils is displayed in New York. Ownership of two fossilized dinosaur skeletons found on a Montana ranch in 2006 are the subject of a legal battle over whether they are part of a property's surface rights or mineral rights. The 2019 Montana Legislature on Friday, March 22, 2019, passed a law clarifying that fossils are part of the surface rights unless a contract says otherwise. The law does not affect the court case. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Legislature unanimously passed a bill Friday to clarify that fossils are part of a property’s surface rights, not its mineral rights, unless a contract separating those rights says otherwise.

The state Senate passed the bill 50-0 after it passed the House 100-0 in February. It now goes to Gov. Steve Bullock for his signature.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Brad Hamlett, was prompted by a legal challenge over the ownership of valuable dinosaur fossils unearthed on an eastern Montana ranch in 2006.

Supporters of the bill said federal agencies and state lands policies differentiate between minerals and fossils and state law should follow suit.

The legislation will not affect the court case over the ownership of the fossils of two dinosaurs that appeared to have been locked in battle when they died.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in November that the fossils of the so-called “Dueling Dinosaurs” are made up of minerals and are part of the property’s mineral estate, which is partially owned by brothers Jerry and Bo Severson.

Mary Ann and Lige Murray, who own the surface rights and a small portion of the mineral rights, are asking for a full panel of the appeals court to hear the case or send it to the Montana Supreme Court for a decision on the ownership of the fossilized remains of the 22-foot-long (7-meter-long) theropod and a 28-foot-long (9-meter-long) ceratopsian. The appeals court hasn’t ruled on their request.

Attorney Shane Swindle has said ownership of the fossils became a legal issue when the Murrays sought to sell the Dueling Dinosaurs. He said would-be buyers wanted to make sure the surface and mineral owners both agreed to the transaction “because the law was insufficient.”

A federal judge in Montana found the fossils belonged to the surface estate because their value is not in their mineral composition, but in other characteristics, “such as the completeness of the specimen, the species of dinosaur and how well it is preserved.”

The Seversons appealed.

The issue prompted the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to consider retaining ownership of fossils, along with the mineral rights, in future transfer or sale of state trust lands, the agency said Thursday.

The Dueling Dinosaurs were put up for auction in New York in November 2013, but bidding topped out at $5.5 million, less than the $6 million reserve price. Other valuable fossils have been found on the Murrays’ ranchland.

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