Montana tribe looks to sell juvenile dinosaur fossil

Browning, Montana (AP) 4-08

The Blackfeet Tribe’s business council has authorized selling a 74-million-year-old dinosaur fossil to help ease a budget shortfall, tribal Chairman Earl Old Person said.

The prospect of the sale has some people debating whether the tribe should sell the fossil or build a museum to display it. Proponents of a museum say it would keep the fossil on the reservation while attracting tourists and money to the area.

“There are pros and cons to selling it,” said Reis Fisher, director of procurement for the tribe, who added the tribe would need to research whether a museum would even be economically viable.

“I wouldn’t want to see our tribe get stuck with a white elephant that they’d have to continue subsidizing,” Fisher said.

He said the tribe is trying to sell the fossil for about $5 million.

The juvenile tyrannosaur fossil, the smallest and most complete ever found in North America, was found on the reservation in 1995 by Blackfeet ranchers and outfitters Dale and Patty Fenner. The only pieces missing are its feet and the end of its tail, said paleontologist Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.

The 10-foot-long fossil has been on display at the Blackfeet Heritage Center since 2003.

Horner said he hopes that if the fossil is sold that “it goes to a museum, not a little object in someone’s living room.”

In recent years, the Blackfeet Tribe’s finances have steadily worsened.

An audit last fall revealed “evidence of pervasive corruption” and fraud involving personal use of tribal vehicles, credit cards and travel vouchers, along with abuse of grant money and political cronyism.

Both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service have sanctioned the tribe for its financial shortfalls by providing grant money in monthly installments rather than in a $7 million lump sum at the beginning of the year, said acting treasurer Ken Augare.

Augare said his mission was to cut back spending until the tribe can live within its budget.

“To me, the way we got in this position is that we overspent for a number of years in a row and had to borrow money to correct our overspending,” Augare said. “The key, to me, is correcting our spending and staying within budget.

“The only other way is to find extra resources, and that’s what that dino represents,” he told the Great Falls Tribune.

Sue Frary of the Judith River Dinosaur Institute in Malta said dinosaur fossils can be profitable without selling them. The institute has loaned its 77-million-year-old duckbill dinosaur mummified fossil, which shows the texture of its skin, to the Houston Museum of Natural Science for 18 months.

When the dinosaur is returned to Malta, it will be housed in a new museum, much of it paid for by profits from the rental agreement. The state also gave the museum $500,000 in startup money.