Thunder Butte

June 01, 2009

Dinosaur Bones -- a Key to Economic Development?

Tyrannosaurus "Sue" on Display at Chicago's Field Museum

Economic developers often look to what a local community has in abundance that other communities do not, especially things that are desirable. Thunder Butte country has a number of good things in abundance – including wide open spaces, big skies, ranchers, and cattle. All well and good, but these things don't provide many jobs, and the small towns and tribal areas are having difficulty sustaining themselves. The Thunder Butte area does have a couple of things going for it that are relatively rare elsewhere – and these are the things for which economic developers would say that the area has a comparative advantage. One of the area's comparative advantages is in the telltale signs of the lost worlds that existed here in times before – the fossil remains of dinosaurs. This part of the country is awash in dinosaur bones.

There have been a number of attempts to capitalize on these resources, but most of the benefits have gone to museums and collectors far afield. The most famous of these is the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton nicknamed “Sue” and the most complete one of its kind, which was discovered by Sue Hendrickson and dug up in 1990 north of the town of Faith. While a replica of Tyrannosaurus Sue paid a visit to Faith last summer, it is Chicago's Field Museum that draws in over 1.5 million visitors a year with exhibits devoted to the important 67 million-year old fossil from this area. The National Museum at Cardiff, Wales, in the U.K. also draws throngs of visitors each year with a more than 65 million year old Edmontosaurus fossil, also known as a duckbilled dinosaur, from the same area. The Welsh museum's fossilized dinosaur is nicknamed “Ruth,” for Ruth Mason whose ranch was the location of the find.

The Ruth Mason Dinosaur Quarry – Ruth died in 1990 – draws some visitors to the area besides the paleologists who regularly work the site on the banks of the Grand River. For example, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis sponsors an annual Dinosaur Dig for families and teachers at the Dinosaur Quarry each July. Participants stay at the Prairie Vista Inn in Faith. For $145 per person per day, the Museum's paleologist, Victor Porter, will lead families to the site, where they can help dig for fossilized bones and prepare them for their ultimate destination, which again is the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. I just wonder whether a small portion of the fossils removed from the ground could stay in the area to benefit Faith and other communities. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the Field Museum would allot a regular slot on its touring schedule to Faith for the replica of Tyrannosaurus Sue?

Who owns these resources muddies to some extent the potential for the area's economic development. Fossils taken from private land like the Ruth Mason Dinosaur Quarry are worked by professional fossil hunters, but the fruits of their labors often are sold off to far flung museums and collectors around the world. For example, the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, SD, which excavated – and became involved in a protracted legal battle – over the Tyrannosaurus “Sue” fossil, is an undisputed leader in its field for the professional excavation of dinosaur fossils, and has worked the Ruth Mason Quarry for many years. The Institute not only prepares fossils and replicas for sale to museums around the world, but has been instrumental in the organization and development of the Black Hills Museum of Natural History, which has become an important educational resource and focus for the economic development of Hill City. A resource like this closer to Faith could be a boon to local economic development.

Perhaps the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has gotten it right. The Standing Rock Reservation tries to capitalize on its wealth of fossils and offers a Paleological Field School and family field trips to the fossil beds located there. More importantly from an economic perspective, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe also asked recently for the return of 14,000 fossils taken on digs sponsored by Concordia College, which have been housed and studied on the college's campus in Moorhead, Minnesota, since 1990. The tribe plans to open its own museum and continue studies of the specimens with professional paleologists and its own Sitting Bull College. While unfortunate in some respects for Concordia College – and the school's Professor Ron Nellermoe, who has devoted a good portion of his professional life to these digs and the study of the fossils – the Tribe regains an important resource that could be a key for promoting its own economic development.

I don't like to take on issues of politics or religion in this blog, but – breaking my own rule – I will say that some local efforts have been misguided. Take for example the case of the Grand River Museum in the town of Lemmon. The owners have dedicated themselves quite laudably to building an important educational center for the area, attempting in their museum to preserve and present information on the area's homesteading, ranching, and Lakota arts and culture. However, the museum's devotion to Creation Science – an attempt to interpret fossils through biblical scripture – has led to a puzzling and curious display of fossils and information that doesn't benefit anyone.

--Mike Crowley

Editor's Note--I hope that my readers will understand that I am quite sincere in my praise of the Grand River Museum for its efforts in helping to preserve knowledge about the local area's homesteading, ranching, and tribal history.
Mike Crowley Monday, June 01, 2009


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