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REPORTER: Ginny Stein

It's high summer in Montana and, with a long drought continuing to bite, there is precious little to harvest.

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But for some ranchers here, their fields are proving much more fertile than they ever thought possible.

LARRY TUSS, FARMER: Then you just keep following it up… and it probably came from up there because it's pretty warm.

Larry Tuss is one farmer who's happy to look back in time.

LARRY TUSS: Coming out of the bank right there.

The seeds for his latest crop were planted millions of years ago. Now, his field is producing bones – dinosaur bones, to be exact.

LARRY TUSS: Right here. This is.. that's a bone. It's really an old, weathered bone. But it's a bone. And you just look for …

REPORTER: How do you know it's a bone rather than just a rock?

LARRY TUSS: Because it's got little.. you can see where the blood vessels were in the bone.

Larry Tuss is a third-generation wheat-and-barley farmer, and now, champion dinosaur hunter.

REPORTER: Did you think, though, that you'd ever be that hooked on this?

LARRY TUSS: Never. Not in my wildest dreams I never thought so. It's really..yeah, cool.

REPORTER: What has captured your imagination about them?

LARRY TUSS: The diversity of them. So many different ones. There's, you know..out of the 13 I've found, I've probably found 7 different ones.

Once he had discovered them, he realised his job was done. It was time to call in the professionals. The task of digging up his farm's pre-historic mother lode has been handed over to a commercial fossil-hunting company. And that's where Larry Tuss falls out with the scientific community.

GEORGE STANLEY,UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA, PALAEONTOLOGY DEPT: They have lots of land, but they have no money. And their crops are failing, they're not doing well. They are having trouble with their cattle. And so when they find fossils, used to be they would just kick them around and call them rocks. Now they find fossils and, instead of finding a scientist, they'll go through a broker or dealer and find someone to sell them to….

George Stanley is the head of the University of Montana's palaeontology centre.

GEORGE STANLEY: This is teleoceras, a very large and famous mammal from… Montana. And this is part of the fossil heritage of our state.

He says valuable specimens are being destroyed as commercial fossil-hunters dig for profit.

GEORGE STANLEY: These professional commercial collectors use bulldozers and backhoes and heavy equipment, even dynamite. And in the process of doing it, they are blasting away, potentially, good fossils, in the interest of getting one particular kind that they want. So they might run a bulldozer over some other fossils they consider not important.

MIKE TRIEBOLD: Most dinosaur country is really pretty. I love it. This is our office.

Mike Triebold started professionally excavating pre-historic bones two decades ago. He and his team have been digging at this site in the Dog Creek Valley in America's Midwest for the past few weeks. He dismisses claims that outfits like his damage the nation's natural history.

MIKE TRIEBOLD: There are a few palaeontologists who are just adamantly opposed to any sort of free enterprise when it comes to fossils. I do believe that the majority of palaeontologists understand and appreciate what we're doing.

Mike Triebold employs qualified palaeontologists to assess the sites and help with the excavations.

KRAIGE DERSTLER, COMMERCIAL PALAEONTOLOGIST: This is a bone map, it shows the edge of the excavation, edge of the bone pile as it was exposed before we found it. The excavation edge will be back here when we finish it.

Palaeontologist Kraig Derstler from the University of New Orleans works for Triebold, helping to uncover and identify each bone as they find it.

KRAIGE DERSTLER: Superglue works just fine.

He says there's no difference to how he operates in the field on this commercial dig than what he'd be doing on a university-funded excavation. Either way, it's a slow process.

KRAIGE DERSTLER: And we don't even know what this bone is yet, because we.. until this gets removed, you know, we'll lift it off carefully and jacket it, we won't expose it enough to know what it is.

They have been able to confirm one thing for certain – it's a dinosaur.

KRAIGE DERSTLER: Because all dinosaurs have this non-bony hip socket. It's called, technical term is a perforated acetabulum. Birds and dinosaurs are the only two groups of animals that have this perforation. That's one of the reasons we say birds and dinosaurs are relatives closely related.

This is a painstaking process. Dinosaurs emerge slowly after being scraped away bone by bone with brushes, picks and knives. Then each bone is given its own plaster cast to protect it. And the location where each bone was found is mapped out.

KRAIGE DERSTLER: Right now, we've got positions and numbers for each of the peripheral bones and I was just sketching in the main pile of bones. And I'll make a much larger version of this map so I can get all the detail into it.

The hills around here are rich in dinosaur bones. This season alone, these fossil-hunters have unearthed a mixed bag of pre-historic remains.

KRAIGE DERSTLER: In this particular summer, we have come up with at least four skeletons. We've found parts of a horned dinosaur, but not enough to really count as a skeleton, and just yesterday, as a matter of fact, we found a Tyrannosaurus skeleton. As soon as we've finished on this, we'll work on that.

Before they can dig much deeper on this site, diagnostic help of the high tech kind is called in to play. This cask contains a potentially important discovery. Unshelled or unbroken dinosaur eggs.

KRAIGE DERSTLER: The fun possibility that we have to consider is that they are potentially unshelled eggs. They're kind of the right size, they have lots of little bits of bone in them, and I didn't want to expose the bone to see what it was.

Kraig and Larry have brought the dinosaur eggs to the local hospital in the hope that X-rays will tell them what is inside the shells. It's an after-hours operation, but not out of the ordinary for hospital staff who live in dinosaur country. The first round of X-rays fails to provide conclusive results.

KRAIGE DERSTLER: Best-case would have been that, yeah, sure, it is an egg and yeah, we can see individual bones in there or embryo bones that were clear and distinct. I was expecting something equivocal. Like maybe yes, maybe no. And that's kind of what we're seeing.

But then the big guns of imaging are brought in. The hospital offers to put this fossil through its high-powered CAT scan. And the results give greater hope.

KRAIGE DERSTLER: Oh, look at that. Um… there's some structure in there. Whatever it is, this is going to give me a whole bunch of more information to interpret it. But I really don't know if they're playing with the images a lot.

GEORGE STANLEY: And this is only one tooth. One single tooth. And, he was collected by a young boy who brought it in with his mum.

But George Stanley says there are some things that scientists can't condone, and buying and selling America's natural history is one of them.

GEORGE STANLEY: We are scientists. And we think that fossils are priceless. We can't put a price on it. Why can't people come to me and say “Oh, I have this fossil. I want you to appear in court and testify to its value or write a statement.” I just refuse because I say “Well, what is the value of a fossil? You can't put a monetary value on it.” The value to me is the value to science.

The United States Congress is currently considering legislation to restrict who has the right to collect fossils. Under federal law, America's law-makers have restricted commercial fossil-hunters to digging for bones on private land. Unless they're able to obtain a permit, which is being made harder to get. Pete Larson is a palaeontologist and commercial fossil-hunter who testified before Congress hoping to prevent new restrictions being imposed.

PETE LARSON, PALAEONTOLOGIST AND FOSSIL HUNTER: They actually belong not to Americans, but to the world. They're part of our entire humanity's history, not just one country's history. How can we possibly expect people to understand how evolution works if we don't have those objects which prove evolution available to all the people who need to see those things?

Museums are overwhelmingly the biggest buyers of fossils and dinosaur bones. And in recent years, have been bolstering their natural history displays.

PETE LARSON: This is polyurethane foam. It's got a colouring agent, the same thing we use with when you're colouring cement. But it's nice and light, and very, very durable.

The dinosaur resurgence in museums across the United States comes at a time when the fundamental theories of evolution have come under attack by creationists on the religious right.

PETE LARSON: And we slide this on, making sure it's going to fit.

And that's meant more work for commercial fossil companies to provide them with both real fossils and replicas.

PETE LARSON: The cycad and its clone. The clone is a little easier to move.

Commercial fossil-hunters argue that, while exploration is the start point, this is the business end. Like his commercial colleagues, Pete Larson takes exception to academics complaining about buying and selling fossils as they are his biggest clients.

PETE LARSON: Commercial fossil-hunters now provide most of the exhibit specimens that you see in museums, most of the new exhibits are creations of commercial fossil people. And so it is, in essence, where most of the people see dinosaurs or see fossils those fossils were collected by people like ourselves.

Pete Larson's team has been digging here in the Bear Lodge Mountains a remote corner of north-east Wyoming for the past eight years. 70-year-old Elaine and her husband Leslie have lived here all their lives. This property belonged to Elaine's father.

ELAINE WAUGH: After my father passed away, then us kids split the place apart and we got it, and we ran sheep for a while. But the coyotes and whatnot got too bad.

Now the Waughs are hoping dinosaur farming will be a lot more profitable.

PETE LARSON: And I like thin, flat bones because that could possibly be a skull bone.

And for that, they turn to commercial fossil-hunter Pete Larson.

PETE LARSON: Coming out right here is very flat and very thin.

He was part of the team that discovered Sue, the Tyrannosaurus rex. It became the world's most expensive dinosaur, a Chicago museum the new owner.

PETE LARSON: That fossil sold for $8.36 million. That was a revelation to us. But that is the far end of the spectrum. Most dinosaurs will bring less than a million dollars. And there's so much work into it.

Pete Larson's company leases the land for $1,000 a month. But the Waughs will also receive a percentage of all future sales of bones, or of the replicas cast from the fossils discovered here.

PETE LARSON: All of these little white pieces here, most of them, anyway, are all bone. You can see they're a little bit bleached in the sun. But that's a piece of dinosaur bone.

But it's not individual bones they are seeking. The prize, whole skeletons. And that is a long process, involving many thousands of working hours before they can see any return.

PETE LARSON: That's the challenge, and in fact we've been digging here now for, this is our eighth year of really concentrated digging. And we have yet to feel that we've collected enough material to put together even one of these skeletons yet because we're missing, for instance, the arms of this camarasaurus which sits on top. In the end, we'll have probably five or six dinosaurs. But it may take us another five or 10 years before we'll be able to put them together.

But it is this site that makes academics and critics of commercial fossil-hunters both nervous and angry. A wild storm the night before has drowned the dig site. And the decision is made to bring in heavy machinery to cut a drainage channel. Pete Larson defends this action, saying the years he spent in the field have taught him to take safe shortcuts.

PETE LARSON: One very nice thing about deposits like this is it follows the rule of geology, and that is that we have basically horizons laid down at different times so when we get into that yellow stuff, that's a limestone layer that actually marks the bottom of our bone deposit. When we're in that yellow stuff there's no more bones. We can go through that rather wickedly where we would not dare do that in the upper horizon.

While capitalism is yet to match the dinosaur eras longevity, rancher Larry Tuss is hoping that his passion may eventually help fund his retirement.

LARRY TUSS: It would be, yeah. The dinosaurs probably won't sell for 8 to 10 years, as a rule. And I'll be retiring in about 8 to 10 years. And so we're hoping that it'll be sort of a supplement income after we retire. That's sort of what we're hoping.

Feature Report: Dino Dollars

Reporter/Camera

GINNY STEIN

Editor

NICK O’BRIEN

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