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Dispute Erupts Over Title to T. Rex Fossil

Paleontology: Finding on Montana ranch pits farmers against federal agency. Both sides claim ownership of the land--and the bone.


HELENA, Mont. — What may be the largest Tyrannosaurus rex fossil ever found has been unearthed on a Montana cattle ranch, touching off a dispute over who has claim to the site.

Notre Dame University paleontologist Keith Rigby said identification of the fossil is not yet complete, but if it is not a T. rex it may be a completely new variety of dinosaur--and the largest meat-eater ever found.

"There is some possibility that it may be new, and T. rex may have to become 'T-who?' " Rigby said Tuesday.

Rigby said he found a pubis bone, one of three bones in the pelvis, that measures at least 52 inches, compared with 48 inches in the largest T. rex fossil ever measured.

However, the femurs, or thigh bones, which paleontologists normally use to estimate the size of dinosaurs, are still unexcavated.

Rigby said he was forced to reveal the find before the fossil could be confirmed because of an unauthorized excavation over the weekend that prompted federal agents to intervene to keep bones from being taken away.

James Rector, a lawyer who has been helping Rigby, said he saw two sons of the former landowner and other relatives using a tractor Sunday to dig at the site, in northeastern Montana near Glasgow.

Rector said he alerted the FBI and the federal Farm Service Agency, which owns the land. No one was arrested, but the FBI is investigating.

Rector said he asked Steve Walton, a son of former landowner Edmund Walton, what he intended to do with the bones and the man replied: "I'm going to save my farm and feed my children."

T. rex fossils can be extremely valuable. A 50-foot fossil nicknamed Sue, which was found in South Dakota in 1990, is expected to bring more than $1 million when it is auctioned next month at Sotheby's in New York.

Rigby said he began work at the Montana site more than a year ago with permission of people who claimed to own the land, but he later became suspicious. He said he did a title search and found that FSA took ownership of the land several years ago. The Waltons claim the land is still theirs.

Two men who identified themselves to Associated Press in separate calls as Steve Walton and Fred Walton said Tuesday that the group did not take anything from the site and were there merely out of curiosity. Both said ownership of the land is still in dispute and they might be entitled to some money from the dinosaur find.

Both callers said they had not talked to anyone from the FBI, but had talked with a woman from the FSA and a deputy sheriff. Both also said the third person mentioned by Rector, Patrick Walton, was not at the site Sunday.

A similar fight was waged over Sue, one of the most complete T. rex fossils ever found. It was seized by the government in 1992 from Peter L. Larsen, the fossil dealer who excavated it. The government said the land where Sue was found was under federal jurisdiction and off-limits to Larsen.

Sotheby's is selling the fossil on behalf of the Sioux Indian on whose ranch Sue was found.

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