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Along U.S.-Canada Border, A Booming Business For Dinosaur Bones


In the West, there's always been stuff in the ground that can you make you rich - gold, silver, oil. And now - dinosaur bones. For-profit companies have started hunting the hills for fossils. Stacey Vanek Smith of our PLANET MONEY podcast reports on the booming business of bones.


STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Randy Rees lives on a cattle ranch in northeastern Montana. The only way to get to his house is a long drive down a really rough dirt road. One day about two years ago, he saw a couple of guys driving down that road.

RANDY REES: A guy showed up with a fruit basket.

SMITH: They had a fruit basket?

R. REES: Yeah. (Laughter).

SMITH: And what did he say?

R. REES: Asked if they could go out and look around for fossils, I guess.

SMITH: Look around for fossils. Rees is this really modest, quiet guy. They offered him $5,000 to look around, and if they found something, Rees would get a 10 percent cut of the profit.

R. REES: They came back this year and they thought they'd found a T-Rex. So that was kind of exciting (laughter).

SMITH: There was a T-Rex in Randy Rees's backyard. His son, Shane, kept an eye on the dig, picked up some phrases from the fossil diggers.

SHANE REES: They found new orbital, eye socket-like bones and maybe like...

CB REES: Ornamental, he said.

S. REES: Yeah, like the scaly kind of bones that go on, like, their skin or something, like horns. So it's the most complete T-Rex skull ever found.

SMITH: In the U.S., if you find a T-Rex or some other fossil on your land, you own it. You don't have to turn it over to the government or scientists. You can sell it to the highest bidder. The market for fossils has exploded over the last couple decades. There are hundreds of private companies with fruit baskets knocking on doors all over Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming - that is some of the best fossil-hunting country in the world. Jack Horner is a paleontologist at the Museum of the Rockies. He says when the private guys come in the science gets lost.

JACK HORNER: When we're looking for scientific information, you know, the rock around it and how the thing is laying and exactly where it is geologically and geographically, that's all important information for us.

SMITH: Not so much for private companies. Horner says they are all about get in, get bones, get out. And when Randy Rees's sons, CB and Shane, take me to the dig site for their T-Rex, it's kind of a mess.

Whoa. It's like a construction site.

They walk me over to the spot where the T-Rex was found, and sitting out in the dirt is this huge plaster lump about the size of a bumper car.

CB REES: Whoa. That looks like there's still bones out here. Oh, my God. There's still a plaster left.

S. REES: Wow.

CB REES: That better not be the skull.

SMITH: Dinosaur bones are placed in plaster to protect them while they get moved. And the Rees's think this is the skull of their T-Rex. It's been sitting here for more than a month.

S. REES: They should've gotten it out by now because pretty soon they're not going to be able to get it out. Once winter hits, this is going to be stuck here. That's a million dollars sitting right there.

SMITH: The company wouldn't talk, but they sent an email saying, yes, that is the skull, but it weighs a lot and we need to wait for the right equipment so we can move it without damaging it. They told the Rees's this T-Rex is probably worth between $1 million and $2 million, which means the Rees's could end up getting a couple-hundred thousand dollars. Shane Rees wants a museum to buy it. But there are a lot of private buyers, especially overseas. Japan buys a lot of dinosaurs.

S. REES: It really does belong in a museum and not in a private collection where only one person gets to enjoy it.

SMITH: It may end up in a private collection.

S. REES: If they pay more, I'm OK with it.

SMITH: Pete Larson runs the Black Hills Institute, one of the biggest private fossil companies in the world. He says, the more people digging up fossils, the better.

PETE LARSON: Fossils are abundant on the face of the Earth. There are millions and millions of fossils that are destroyed every year by weathering. If we don't collect them, what do they do? They go to nothing, they're plant food.

SMITH: Larson says there is this little window of time between when a fossil starts to peek out of the ground after a rainstorm or a snow melt and when it crumbles to dust. More private collectors mean more fossils getting saved. Shane and CB Rees tell me this is true. They grew up seeing fossils all over their ranch. They take me to a place where they've seen a lot of them.

S. REES: Oh, my God. Right here.

CB REES: Oh, yeah. Look at that.

SMITH: Whoa. Oh, that's, like, a shoulder blade.

S. REES: Yeah. Welcome to Rees ranch.

SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.

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