Lige and Mary Ann Murray own the surface rights and one-third of the mineral rights of the ranch near Jordan, while brothers Jerry and Bo Severson each own a third of the mineral rights on the ranch once owned by their father.
The dinosaurs unearthed on the ranch include a T. rex found in 2013, a triceratops skull discovered in 2011 and the 2006 discovery of a pair of dinosaurs that appeared to have been locked in battle when they died. The T. rex was sold for millions of dollars. The so-called “dueling dinosaurs” drew a bid of $5.5 million in a 2014 auction, but failed to reach the $6 million reserve price.
In a legal effort to clarify the ownership of the dueling dinosaurs before trying to sell them, the Murrays sought a court order saying they owned the fossils. A federal judge in Montana ruled dinosaur fossils were part of the surface estate and thus they were owned by the Murrays. The Seversons appealed, and a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in a 2-1 decision in February 2018.
The Murrays asked for a rehearing before a larger appeals panel. The 9th Circuit agreed, but first asked the Montana Supreme Court to answer whether, under Montana law, dinosaur fossils are minerals for the purpose of a mineral reservation. In a 4-3 ruling, the justices said dinosaur fossils are part of the surface rights.
The answer sends the case back to the 9th Circuit for the re-hearing. A date has not been set. As a result of the legal battle, the 2019 Legislature unanimously passed a bill stating dinosaur fossils are not considered minerals under Montana law unless the contract separating the surface and mineral rights reserves fossils as part of the mineral rights.