For These Cowboys, Payday Is Found Beneath the Soil

Hunting dinosaur fossils is a booming sideline at the moment
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 3, 2021 9:35 AM CDT
Modern Cowboys Rustle Dinosaurs, Too
In this 2013 photo, Clayton Phipps of Montana poses for a picture with one of the two "dueling dinosaurs" he discovered on a Montana ranch in 2006.   (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Clayton Phipps runs cattle on his Montana ranch, but that ranch may not have survived over the years if not for his side hustle, the one that has earned him the nickname "Dinosaur Cowboy." As a story by Andrew Zaleski at Bloomberg explains, the 48-year-old Phipps hunts dinosaur fossils—and he's good at it. The story begins with Phipps unearthing a small triceratops tooth on his property with a knife. "I'll get probably 50 of these on an average day," he says. "They’re only worth maybe five bucks, but 50 of them adds up." Phipps is not the only dinosaur cowboy out there, and the unusual sideline is actually booming at the moment. A fossil broker notes that a T. rex tooth that would have fetched $1,000 per inch a decade ago will fetch $4,000 per inch today. The Discovery Channel has even jumped on the craze with Dino Hunters, on which Phipps is a star.

Another reason for his relative celebrity: Back in 2006, Phipps unearthed one of the most famous dinosaur fossils in recent history. Known as "Dueling Dinosaurs," it features two complete fossils of two dinosaurs that may have been in combat when frozen in time. Phipps sold it for $6 million to a nonprofit that donated it to a North Carolina museum, though after splitting the money with the landowners, factoring in three months' of excavation work, plus brokerage and legal fees (to resolve a dispute involving people who had mineral rights on the land), his take-home was far less (he's not allowed to specify). The story digs in to those types of logistics, plus the tension between amateur hunters and paleontologists, who fear proper care won't be taken with specimens. Phipps, regarded as a meticulous excavator, offers his view: "More fossils are being destroyed by Mother Nature than are collected," he says. "There’s no reason we can’t all work together." (Read the full story.)

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