“All I’ve ever done besides hunt dinosaurs is cowboy.”
Clayton Phipps was born and raised on a cattle ranch in Garfield County, but has gained fame as a dinosaur hunter with some truly amazing fossil discoveries.
Clayton says that as a young man he and his brother would spend time looking for arrowheads and that gave him an eye to watch for something different on the ground. But how does one go from working as a cowboy in the Missouri Breaks to scouring the hills for signs of fossils?
“I was working as a cowboy on a ranch here in Garfield County and a fella came out to the place and asked the landowner if he could look for dinosaur bones,” says Clayton. That was after the movie Jurassic Park had come out and fossil hunting had become quite popular “He came back and he had some pieces of bone that he was showing me. What he had was a piece of triceratops shield and he said this piece here might be worth $500.”
“I thought wait…you just picked up a rock and it might be worth $500? I just started trying to learn everything I could about it. I went to all the little museums and I started looking and anytime when I was done with what ever ranch duties I had to do, I would look around for dinosaur bones.”
Eastern Montana is well-known for dinosaur fossils. The Hell Creek Formation that stretches across Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas is one of the richest dinosaur troves on the planet. “It’s not hard to find a fragment of a dinosaur,” Phipps says. “But it is rare to find a good one that’s valuable.”
Clayton’s first major find came in 2003 when he was prospecting with some friends and found a rare Stygimoloch skull. “It looked like a dragon head, it was really a cool little dinosaur skull,” Clayton remembers. “It gave me about a year’s wages. We ended up selling that one to a private collector. So I told my wife I was going to quit my job as a cowboy and see if I could make a living.”
Clayton and wife Lisa live and work on a part of the ranch Clayton grew up on and Clayton says, “We’ve managed to scrape a living out of the country for the last 15 or so years. It’s been tough at times. There’s a lot of ups and downs in this dinosaur business, but I haven’t starved to death yet.”
A few years later, Clayton and some of his partners unearthed one of the most well-preserved fossils in history. Actually, it was two fossils, locked in combat that came to be known as the Dueling Dinosaurs. “If they’re not number one in the world of paleontology, they’re in the top 5 for sure,” says Clayton. “I may be little biased. We were blessed to be a part of that project. We found these dinosaurs that were probably worth as much as the land was worth. Which is an uncommon thing.”
“Just because you find a dinosaur on your place, don’t get stars in your eyes. I’ve worked on several projects that actually cost me money. The Dueling Dinosaurs were very special, they were like art. The bodies are almost 100% complete, both of them. Which never happens in dinosaurs. In the history of paleontology, there’s only a handful of complete specimens in the world.”
Clayton is grateful for the opportunity that fossil hunting has afforded him and his family. “Agriculture has been rough for the last 4 or 5 years here,” he comments. “This is a way that I’ve found to help ranchers out and support my family. And it’s a fun way to make a living, I enjoy every minute of it.”
Some producers have found other ways to generate some revenue from the interest in dinosaur fossils. Clayton has worked with some ranch families that host dinosaur digs. A few that Clayton points out are Shannon and Justin Baisch from Glendive and Clayton’s brother Jason Phipps and his wife Colleen who ranch near Sand Springs. Clayton says, “They both have bunkhouses where people can bring their families out and have modern conveniences and you can spend a couple days with your family out there playing in the dirt and finding dinosaurs. It’s just a lot of fun, but be careful you don’t catch this bug I have, because that’s all you’ll want do.”
Now it looks like the Phipps family will find their way to some more fame as they are part of a new 6-part Discovery Channel Series called “Dino Hunters” that premieres Friday June 19th at 7 p.m.
“I think it’ll be entertaining for people and I hope folks enjoy it,” Clayton says. “I hope folks like the show and I hope it’s something they can sit down with their kids and enjoy.”
Check out the preview for the “Dino Hunters” series below. To see more of the projects Clayton is working on visit CKpreparations.com. The dinosaur digs can be found at CowboyDinoDigs.com and DailyDinosaurDigs.com.
Northern Ag Network
Photos Courtesy of the Discovery Channel and CK Preparations