Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Rollin' Rollin' Rollin' Keep those Rexes Rollin'

The Dinosaur Cowboy

Montana cattleman Clayton Phipps is living off the land – by digging up T. rex skeletons.
Clayton Phipps hikes along a prairie ridge near Jordan, Montana, staring at the ground. Ancient tributaries of the Missouri River have carved the landscape into a comb of dry ravines and flat-topped buttes. It's a barren and sandy place – but one that holds a coveted treasure. Phipps, 40, squats and plucks a blackish nub from the dirt, and when he blows away the dust, a tiny specimen of bone appears: the remnants of a mammal's skull, left here millions of years ago when Montana held an ancient sea. "This little jaw could be worth 100 bucks," he says.

With the average Montana ranch hand making about $25,000 a year, some locals, like Phipps – a third-generation cowboy who runs 40 head of Black Angus cattle on a small family ranch – have viewed the area's rich bone deposits as a better way to make a living. (The region is an unusually accessible dinosaur-bone field, owing to its ex­posed Cretaceous rock, known as the Hell Creek Formation, and lack of vegetation. The first-known Tyrannosaurus rex was excavated here in 1902.) Last year, Phipps made international headlines when his "duel­ing dinosaur" fossils – a tyrannosaurid and a horned ceratopsian locked in battle, which he'd excavated near here – were expected to fetch $7 million at Bonhams auction house in New York.

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