(CN) – The Montana Supreme Court met en banc Thursday morning to decide once and for all whether or not dinosaur fossils are minerals.
The question emerged when a Tyrannosaurus rex was discovered in 2013 on Mary Ann and Lige Murray’s property in Garfield, Montana. Though the Murrays owned the surface of the land, they shared oil, gas, and coal rights with several other companies including BEJ Minerals, and the couple sued BEJ Minerals for complete ownership of the T. rex.
In 2016, U.S. District Judge Susan Watters, an Obama appointee, entered summary judgment in favor of the Murrays, declaring them “the sole owners of the dinosaur fossils found on the subject property."
But the extraction companies appealed. In May, the Ninth Circuit called for the Montana Supreme Court to weigh in because no other controlling precedent existed in the Treasure State.
"These aren't rocks,” attorney Harlan Krogh told the panel on behalf of the Murrays. Krogh is a partner at Billings firm Crist Krogh & Nord. “Unless you take that logical leap that a bone from a once living creature that roamed this earth [becomes] a mineral like a chunk of coal."
Asked by Judge Ingrid Gustafson what makes a fossil different from oil, which is also derived from organic material, Krogh said: “You can Google it. Oil isn't from dinosaurs, it's from a geological process of plants, plankton, and organisms that die, go to the bottom of the ocean, [and] are pressurized with heat."
"If I'm playing 20 questions with my grandchildren, and I say it's a mineral and it ends up being a dinosaur fossil, I think they're going to be mad," Krogh said.
Krogh urged the court to look to the "ordinary and natural" meaning of mineral, rather than a scientific definition.
Representing BEJ Minerals, attorney Eric Wolff took up Krogh’s challenge.
"I am more than happy to take a Montana school child test, if you provide a school child who has been to the Museum of the Rockies and is at least a B student," Wolff said.
“I believe all the arrows point to these very valuable fossils being minerals,” he added. "These are rocks and very valuable rocks in Montana are minerals. It's as simple as that."
Wolff also pointed out that if the fossils are categorized as minerals under the legal system, then both plaintiffs and defendants would share in the profits because they share the mineral rights to the estate.
"My question is, do we have to consider all bones minerals,” Chief Justice Mike McGrath asked. “How do you make the distinction between some dinosaur bones are minerals and some aren't, and yet they all have the same characteristics? Because we don't do that with oil, we don't do that with natural gas, gold, or whatever kind of minerals. So why do we carve out a separate exception for dinosaur bones?"
Seventh District Judge Olivia Reager rounded out the panel with District Justices Jim Shea, Laurie McKinnon, Dirk Sandefur, Beth Baker and Ingrid Gustafson. Judge James Rice recused himself from the case.
The panel did not indicate when or how it would answer the Ninth Circuit question.
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