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Outside the small lackluster towns that dot eastern Montana lies rolling prairie occasionally broken by abandoned houses, wind-whipped sagebrush ridges and eerie patches of badlands. Thousands of these parched acres are required to support a family in the primary local occupations of ranching or farming. Garfield County, home to both Phipps and the Dueling Dinosaurs, has around 1,200 residents sprinkled over 5,000 square miles. Average household incomes are 30 percent below the national average, and people have been moving away for the last century. The population has decreased by almost 50 percent during Phipps’ lifetime.
To a paleontologist, however, the badlands are a treasure trove. “Montana is the richest state, by virtue of having the highest number of different formations that are potentially dinosaur-bearing,” says David Trexler, president of the nonprofit Two Medicine Dinosaur Center in Bynum, Mont.
Trexler grew up in the unincorporated hamlet of 31 people, and he and his family have spent their lives in the region. He left long enough to get a degree in paleontology, and his mother, an amateur fossil hunter, was the first to discover baby dinosaurs in Montana.
Eastern Montana contains wide swaths of the intensively studied Hell Creek Formation, a fossil-rich deposit of sediments laid down during the end of the dinosaurs’ heyday, the late Cretaceous Period. Bones from the formation are constantly surfacing and eroding away, says Trexler, and there aren’t enough academically trained paleontologists to keep up with them.
That’s where the non-degreed fossil hunters come in.
Clayton Phipps has bright blue eyes and wears a Gene Autry-style neckerchief and black cowboy hat. The 40-year-old was raised on a sprawling ranch not far from the Dueling Dinosaur discovery. He always wanted to be a cowboy, although he never expected to become the Dinosaur Cowboy.
With his wife and three kids, Phipps lives in a partially remodeled home tucked away down a dirt road near a rare stand of pine trees. It is the home he knew as a child and the place he wants to raise his family. Their 1,100 acres might seem a kingdom to those outside Montana, but in this dry and rugged environment, the property is simply “a little too big to starve to death on,” says Phipps.
Ranching proved unprofitable, so Phipps often worked as a ranch hand. He was introduced to the fossil business more than a decade ago during a chance encounter with a prospector who was working with a local rancher. Phipps knew the land well and saw an opportunity. “I had to supplement my income somehow,” he says. “From the beginning, it has been my idea to propose to the landowners that value is there and they should be compensated for it.”
The dinosaur fossil market ranges from unidentified bone chunks sold in souvenir shops, to identified teeth and claws, to complete skeletons offered by commercial middlemen, to carefully prepared museum specimens. Buyers range from impulsive one-time customers to serious collectors and investors who think the value will rise over time. Phipps is a self-taught bone hunter, relying on books and the advice of other amateurs. As a child, he combed his backyard for arrowheads and other treasures. Now he focuses on fossils, scanning the ranches of the region, sometimes with partners, then splitting profits 50-50 with landowners. Although many ranchers tend to regard fossil hunters warily, Phipps has earned their trust as “the local neighbor boy.”
“The (professional) bone hunters don’t have a really good reputation around here, because a lot of the academics haven’t done much for our community,” Phipps says. “They’ve come in and said, ‘Oh, yeah, we are going to study this,’ then no one hears anything about it after they leave.”