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Bones of Contention : It has all the ingredients of a Western: a rancher, a big-city interloper and a range war. But this skirmish over evolution doesn't star cattle. It's over dinosaurs.

July 29, 1994|BILL HARLAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWCASTLE, Wyo. — Here's an idea for a dinosaur movie:

A big-city paleontologist discovers dinosaur bones on a Wyoming ranch. Maybe millions of bones, adding up to a herd of perhaps 8,000 giant duckbill dinosaurs.

Naturally, there's a catch. The duckbill graveyard is on land owned by a Christian cowboy so opposed to evolution he won't even let anyone lecture about it on his ranch. Despite their differences, the scientist and the rancher become friends. Both are fascinated by the fossils and both want to build an educational field station. But neither will budge on how life began.

The scientist won't be a party to teaching creationism; the rancher threatens to turn the whole dig over to a "creation paleontologist."

Imagine a high-plains version of "Inherit the Wind." In the Wyoming version, no one is threatened with jail over evolution, but the future of a major scientific discovery is at stake.

Meet paleontologist Kraig Derstler and rancher Glenn Hanson, the ontological odd couple who are living the movie in real life.

Derstler discovered the Dragon's Grave bone bed on Hanson's ranch last summer. But if the two men can't agree on a lease for the site by Aug. 12, Derstler might lose the right to dig the bones.

Derstler, 40, is a professor of paleontology at the University of New Orleans. His prematurely gray hair gives him the distinguished, academic look you'd want for the movie. On a dig he favors blue jeans, running shoes, T-shirts and a blue bandanna.

Hanson, 77, has lived all his life on the ranch his father homesteaded in 1908. His jeans aren't as faded as Derstler's, but his belt buckle is much bigger. At 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 180 pounds, wearing a beat-up cowboy hat and battered cowboy boots, Hanson is right out of Central Casting too.

The cowboy and the scientist met in 1990, when Derstler began exploring the Lance Formation in eastern Wyoming. The Lance is a crescent-shaped sandstone outcropping, one of the most fertile dinosaur fields on Earth. It runs 100 miles from Lance Creek in the south to the Montana border in the north and is 20 miles across at its widest point.

Paleontologists first found bones here in 1888 (the Triceratops horridus is the most common Lance specimen), but in 1900, just two miles southeast of the Hanson ranch, Barnum Brown discovered the first complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. It is still on display in the British Museum.

The Hanson ranch is smack-dab in the middle of the Lance.

"My sister and I used to gallop around these hills and see these bones everywhere," Hanson says, although he admits he was more interested in the buffalo skulls.

Last summer, Hanson led Derstler to a rugged system of gullies that Derstler would later name Dragon's Grave.

"There were just tons of bones on the surface," Derstler says. "That means there's hundreds of thousands beneath the surface, and more likely millions." Most of the bones belong to one species, the three-ton, plant-eating Edmontosaurus annectens , commonly known as the duckbill dinosaur. By Derstler's conservative estimate, the remains of 300 duckbills lie buried here. His reasonable estimate is 3,000. His liberal estimate is 8,000.

Derstler says it will take a decade to excavate this site. He wants to set up a field station to support a long-term dig and to teach paleontology. Some bones would be displayed at the site. Others would go to a Wyoming museum.

But first he needs a lease from Hanson. That's a problem.

*

Glenn Hanson flat does not believe in evolution.

"I think God created everything," he says. "You look at the flowers, the grass, the sun coming up every day. I just do not believe all that happens by accident."

A lot of "all that" happens here. The 8,000-acre Hanson place is in big country, right out of a John Ford Western.

The Black Hills of South Dakota loom on the eastern horizon, 35 miles away. On a clear day, you can see the Laramie Mountains 50 miles south. Prairie dogs, horned toads, rattlesnakes, deer, antelope, coyotes, foxes and golden eagles live here. Hanson's father cleared out the last den of gray wolves in 1913, but mountain lions are making a comeback.

A newcomer might call the ranch desolate, with its sagebrush, prickly pear cactus and barren gullies. Hanson would disagree. He says the native grasses are rich in protein: "It's almost like feed grain." And the Cheyenne River, which runs through the ranch, provides bottomland for hay.

The ranch offers history lessons too. There are remains of tepee rings and a homesteader's dugout. Hanson collects Native American artifacts, and an archeologist told him one of his lance points was 8,000 years old. Hanson believes it, although some creationists put the age of Earth at 6,000 years. "This Bible's been translated from several languages, so there's room for error," he says.

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