Dave Bradt hoped to bag an elusive elk, but he instead found something significantly more uncommon—a fossilized marine dinosaur.
In late September, the 43-year-old Florence resident went bow hunting with his brother in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana and happened to spot a massive fossil lying across a creek bed.
"I was washing my face in the creek and I saw the rib bones and I thought they were just petrified trees," Bradt recalls. "And I got to looking and I said, 'If I didn't know better, these look like ribs.'"
Bradt pulled back some brush and uncovered vertebrae, and then a tail.
"And I just kept pulling the brush back and it just kept getting bigger," he says. "And then I realized what it was and I thought, 'I need to let someone who knows what they're doing dig this up and make some sense out of it, and maybe put it in a museum.'"
The roughly 12-foot-long fossil isn't in a museum yet, but it's surely destined for one. Bradt found what paleontologists believe is a fossil of a plesiosaur, a massive meat-eating and air-breathing marine reptile that grew up to 50 feet in length and had paddle-like limbs and a long neck. The fossil's thought to be about 70 million years old, from the Cretaceous Period, which marked the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs.
"From the pictures he showed us, it's the first time anybody I've ever talked to has seen anything like that, where it's preserved like that in the open air," says Brian Baziak, an excavation crew chief for the Museum of the Rockies and master's candidate at Montana State University.
At this point, pictures are about all paleontologists are going on, leaving the exact significance of Bradt's find undetermined. Baziak is reluctant to speculate beyond labeling the specimen a marine reptile. He does say it probably came from the Bearpaw Shale Formation, a remnant of the Western Interior Seaway, the inland sea that bisected North America during the mid- and late-Cretaceous Period.
"But until we actually get out there it's hard to say," Baziak says.
The fossil's recovery probably won't happen until spring, after the snow melts and scientists can more easily access the site.
"The reason (paleontologists) are guessing it's a reptile is because there are no femurs or legs, so they're picturing something just with flippers, but the rib cage is about something off of a moose...," Bradt says. "Every one of these guys is guessing something different and they won't know until they dig it up and find its skull and neck length and determine whether it has legs or not."
After Bradt contacted the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge about the fossil, he says law enforcement officials reburied it to ensure that no one else will find it before the site can be properly excavated. Even with it ensconced in brush and snow, some paleontologists still fear poachers may get their hands on the extremely valuable petrified plesiosaur. In fact, one paleontologist declined to speak with the Independent on the record citing a concern that any information given might aid fossil poachers in tracking it down.
"[Poaching] happens now and then, but you don't see a lot of it really," says Bob Harmon, chief preparator at the Museum of the Rockies. "Of course, there's probably a lot you never hear about, too, because they don't want to be found. But we haven't had much trouble with that. And they've got some pretty stiff laws these days—if you get caught, you're in trouble."
Bradt, who runs a guest ranch in Florence, isn't too concerned. He points out that the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge covers 1.1 million acres, so the fossil is a veritable needle in a barn-sized haystack. His lips are sealed as to its exact whereabouts.
"It's actually worth a lot of money if a guy tried to [steal it]," he says, "but the guys who have tried that have been put in prison."
The fossil was found on public land, and Bradt believes it should remain public property.
"It was pretty special to be there," he says. "Certain people find out about it and they're just infatuated with it. They won't stop asking questions. And then you tell someone else and they say, 'Oh, that's nice.' It's really interesting the diversity of responses to it."
Bradt imagines the fossil will elicit many more responses when it's someday displayed at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.
"This thing came from Montana," he says. "It'd be nice if it stayed in Montana."