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  • (upbeat orchestral music)

  • - I think that there's several reasons to own fossils.

  • Science is only one of 'em.

  • - I've made millions of dollars in the dinosaur business.

  • - The thrill of discovery

  • doesn't get old.

  • It's almost like an addiction.

  • - [Narrator] There is a fight going on

  • in the world of dinosaur fossils.

  • The market for these prehistoric treasures is booming,

  • but increasingly, wealthy individuals

  • are buying up the best specimens.

  • And that has paleontologists worried.

  • - A rare, baby T-Rex fossil is for sale on eBay.

  • Some scientists and other critics

  • are calling the listing a disgrace.

  • - [Narrator] Last year, a baby T-Rex fossil

  • was listed on eBay for $2.95 million.

  • The sale outraged many paleontologists.

  • According to a letter from

  • the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology,

  • if the fossil was sold to a private buyer,

  • it would effectively be lost to science

  • since private buyers are under no obligation

  • to share their fossils with researchers.

  • - The scientific community is trying to hurt us.

  • They want to discourage anyone

  • from making money selling fossils.

  • I tell you what?

  • I've been charmed, had a charmed life.

  • And it's all because I pick fights

  • and I'm pickin' fights now.

  • And I'm doin' it in a different way.

  • I'm goin' after the scientific community.

  • They need to open up.

  • (gentle upbeat music)

  • - [Narrator] Alan Dietrich is the commercial fossil hunter

  • selling the baby T-Rex.

  • (door opening)

  • - This is Son of Sampson,

  • the smallest Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur in the world.

  • Son of Sampson was found in 2013,

  • near Jordan, Montana.

  • - [Narrator] Dietrich's T-Rex

  • is a scientifically significant find

  • which is why he had hoped to sell it

  • to the American Museum of Natural History.

  • - It's an important specimen.

  • He has made a big effort

  • to try to get it

  • into a public institution.

  • We were interested in it, for instance.

  • But it just didn't work out.

  • It purely comes down to an issue of price.

  • - [Narrator] Dietrich told The Wall Street Journal

  • that he offered to sell the dinosaur

  • to the American Museum of Natural History

  • for one million dollars,

  • which was about two million less than the asking price.

  • - Usually, like in the art market,

  • when it's been on the market for a long time,

  • it's either not that good or they're asking too much money.

  • So it gets kinda stale.

  • - [Narrator] But Dietrich

  • has been in the fossil business for decades

  • and he's confident that he'll find a buyer.

  • - You know, if you can't wait,

  • you'll spend too much or you won't make enough money.

  • This material's 65 million years old.

  • I can wait a few months.

  • I can wait a few years.

  • (gentle upbeat music)

  • - How lucrative is hunting for fossils?

  • That depends upon how lucky you are,

  • how skilled you are,

  • how much time you have to dedicate to it,

  • and how much money you have to invest in it,

  • in the first place.

  • - [Narrator] Although the commercial market is thriving,

  • that doesn't mean it's easy to make a living

  • as a fossil hunter.

  • - I wear many different hats.

  • So I'm Assistant Professor at Mayville State University.

  • I teach biology, ecology.

  • (water swishing)

  • That's the day job.

  • If I have enough time to come out here to the Badlands,

  • I switch hats and become the Indiana Jones

  • or the Jurassic Park character.

  • - [Narrator] This is one of the best places on Earth

  • to find fossils.

  • Every year, thousands of fossil hunters flock here

  • to the Badlands,

  • to try their luck at finding buried treasure.

  • Recently, one of the lucky ones was Michael Kjelland,

  • who runs a small, non-profit fossil hunting company.

  • To survey the land, Kjelland worked out a deal

  • with the private land owner to split the sale.

  • - One day I was out walking

  • and I went up into this box canyon.

  • In the distance, there was some white colored dinosaur bone.

  • I realized, "Wow, this is a brow horn."

  • And that's how we found Skull X.

  • - [Narrator] Skull X refers to the fossilized skull

  • of an adult triceratops,

  • which Kjelland is working to excavate.

  • But digging the skull out of the ground

  • is only the very beginning of the process

  • of getting the specimen to market.

  • Once the fossil is secure

  • in a dried jacket of plaster of Paris,

  • Kjelland will need to move

  • the approximately 500 pound mound of dirt and rock

  • across this ravine and then, up and out of this canyon.

  • For Kjelland, digging up fossils is a labor of love.

  • He knows that he will likely only break-even on Skull X

  • but that doesn't matter.

  • His primary interest is science.

  • - The reason why I decided to set Fossil Excavators up

  • as a non-profit?

  • Because I'm not in it just for the money.

  • (gentle upbeat music)

  • - I've made millions of dollars in the dinosaur business.

  • You know, I love capitalism

  • because the people that get to the top of the hill

  • get to do what they want to with their money.

  • Welcome to my studio

  • where I clean and prepare fossils.

  • I've sold thousands of fossils.

  • Right now, I have a 30-year accumulation

  • of triceratops dinosaur bones and T-Rex dinosaur bones

  • and Edmontosaurus dinosaur bones,

  • and some new to science bones,

  • I don't know what they are.

  • (loud drilling)

  • Like most commercial fossil hunters,

  • Dietrich doesn't have a formal education in paleontology.

  • But he knows his dinosaurs.

  • What's more, he's an accomplished artist

  • who can prepare and mount his own specimens.

  • But perhaps most importantly,

  • Dietrich has a gift for sales.

  • - Wow!

  • This is a 20-foot mosasaur from Kansas.

  • This was 85 million years old,

  • give or take three million years,

  • some people say 88 million.

  • (blowing loudly)

  • This is what you call the eye of the tiger here.

  • This is what gets kids excited.

  • Buyers, you've gotta excite their imagination.

  • And what I like to tell people is,

  • "You know, at some point

  • "you're gonna be able to ride this thing off

  • "into the sunset.

  • "Because your name will live on

  • "that you owned this dinosaur."

  • (gentle upbeat music)

  • - [Narrator] Today, private ownership of fossils

  • can be seen as controversial.

  • But things weren't always this way.

  • - Commercial fossil hunting has existed

  • since the dawn of modern paleontology.

  • One of our most important specimens in our own collection

  • that's on display here on the fourth floor

  • is a mummy of a duck-billed dinosaur.

  • That specimen was commercially purchased

  • from a legendary fossil hunter named Charles Sternberg.

  • So it's always been part of the game.

  • - [Narrator] The modern commercial market

  • took off in 1997,

  • when Sue, the largest in-tact T-Rex skeleton ever found

  • was auctioned off at Christie's for $8.3 million.

  • - Everybody was just astounded

  • that that specimen would get that much money.

  • I think before that,

  • nothing had ever been sold above like $200,000 or so.

  • - [Narrator] Since then, the commercial market has boomed,

  • driving up prices and making it harder

  • for public institutions like museums to compete.

  • - You know, most of the people in my field

  • would go for more regulation.

  • I personally would go for less regulation.

  • Because there's a lot more fossils out there

  • that are just being destroyed by neglect and erosion

  • than there are paleontologists

  • who can actually collect them.

  • (upbeat orchestral music)

  • - [Narrator] After days of careful extraction and plastering

  • Skull X is finally ready to move.

  • (clicking and whirring)

  • - With a budget of a couple hundred bucks,

  • how do you get it out of there?

  • You can't go out and rent a helicopter.

  • What we do have is a crew

  • that have a lot of creativity.

  • - We're using these metal pipes

  • as a bridge.

  • They're kinda like railroad tracks.

  • Then we're gonna slide it across here.

  • (metal clanging and banging)

  • (upbeat orchestral music)

  • (squeaking loudly)

  • (gentle upbeat music)

  • - [Mark] I think the commercial market has a place.

  • - Ugh!

  • - Okay!

  • - [Mark] The financial side of it gives the motivation

  • for people to go out and look for them and conserve them.

  • Some of them are just so remote

  • they might not even be found.

  • (metal clanging)

  • Now the bad side of the market is

  • people can make up things and maybe they'll make mistakes

  • because they weren't properly trained.

  • (engine running)

  • - Wahoo, (mumbles)!

  • - Yeah! (loud clapping)

  • - Nice, thanks, man. - Well,

  • you gotta be pragmatic.

  • As long as these things are collected ethically,

  • meaning that they're not stolen off public land

  • in this country,

  • or they're not imported from a country

  • that doesn't allow the export of any fossils,

  • just get real with it.

  • I mean, just get used to it.

  • I mean, this is something that's gonna happen.

  • (bang)

  • (cheerful orchestral music)

(upbeat orchestral music)

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Inside the Battle Over Dinosaur Fossil Hunting | WSJ

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    joey joey posted on 2021/05/30
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