According to the ruling by a 9th US Court of Appeals, the rights to the fossils belong to the surface estate owners, Mary Ann and Lige Murray, the Associated Press reported.
— Molly Brady (@mollyxbrady) November 18, 2018
dThe ruling upheld a decision made by US District Judge Susan Watters of Billings, Montana, back in 2016.
“The composition of minerals found in the fossils does not make them valuable or worthless,” Watters wrote at the time. “Instead the value turns on characteristics other than mineral composition, such as the completeness of the specimen, the species of dinosaur and how well it is preserved.”
Brothers Jerry and Bo Severson, who owned two-thirds of the mineral rights on the property where the fossils were found, appealed Watters' decision to the 9th Circuit, although it is not clear when the appeal was filed.
Even though a three-judge appeals court panel overturned Watters’ ruling in February 2018, the Murrays requested that a larger panel of judges evaluate the case. In 2019, the Montana State Legislature also passed a bill dictating that dinosaur fossils belong to a property’s surface estate unless they are specifically reserved as belonging to the mineral estate.
Ahead of making its final ruling, the 9th Circuit requested that Montana’s Supreme Court clarify whether fossils are considered minerals, since when the case began, there were no official state laws on the matter. The Montana justices last month ruled 4-3 that dinosaur fossils are not considered minerals under state law, meaning the remains belong to the Murrays.
“Because Mary Ann and Lige Murray are the undisputed owners of the surface estate here ... the [Montana] Supreme Court's decision requires a resolution in their favor,” 9th Circuit Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas wrote in the court’s ruling, AP reported.
The fossils unearthed on the Montana ranch include a Tyrannosaurus rex found in 2013, a Triceratops skull found in 2011 and a pair of dinosaurs discovered in 2006 that look like they were fighting when they died. While the T. rex sold for millions of dollars, the two dueling dinosaurs have not been purchased. They elicited a bid for $5.5 million in a 2014 auction, but the minimum price of $6 million was not reached, AP reported.