When news broke in 1990 that Pete Larson had unearthed the 13th Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered and was keeping the stunningly complete skeleton in a warehouse at the private Black Hills Institute, the FBI and collectors both took notice. Larson was charged with everything from fossil theft to customs fraud before being incarcerated for 18 months. Seven years after the fossil was found, the dinosaur named Sue was sold by Sotheby’s for $7.6 million. She now presides over the front hall of Chicago's Field Museum.
The new film Dinosaur 13, which debuted last week at Sundance, uses the story of the battle over Sue's remains to make a case for the future of commercial paleontology, which uncomfortably straddles the worlds of science and business. Using interviews with Larson's employees, IRS investigators, and leading paleontologists, director Todd Miller (pictured) explores the byzantine regulations surrounding fossil collection. For a film about a series of lawsuits, the story is emotional and fast moving.
"There are very few museums that collect as many fossils as we do. The commercial aspect is an important aspect and part of what museums are able to do," Larson told Men's Journal. "It's much cheaper for them to come to [commercial paleontologists] to get those dinosaurs."
Initially, the T. rex cost Larson only $5,000 dollars. He bought the bones from a Native-American rancher named Maurice Williams whose tribe had been granted land by the government in the middle of the 19th century. When U.S. Attorney Kevin Schieffer took Larson to trial, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Williams had to have permission from the federal government to sell the skeleton. In essence, the feds sided with the academic paleontologists who view dinosaur hunters like Larson as pirates who steal valuable fossils from public lands and sell them off for pure profit.
Larson, who has since excavated four T. rexes, 10 Hadrosaurs, and two nearly complete Triceratops skeletons, claims he now can't even get a license to look for dinosaurs on public land. The 2009 Omnibus Land Bill signed by President Obama closed fossil research to all but a few select institutions and individuals. Despite his stature in the scientific community, Larson has been effectively blacklisted. While this discourages reputable commercial scientists, it also reigns in untrustworthy private collectors.
"I'm not affiliated with an institution that's allowed to have a permit, but I would not want one," says Larson, who now works solely on private lands and with legal council. "There are so many restrictions on what you can do. You can't even publish the locality of the fossil, which is the suppression of science."
Though critics consider Larson's complaints hollow – Pfizer's chemists don't ask for grant money – Miller makes a convincing argument that he is a necessary (and extremely compelling) evil. Whatever else he does, Larson makes discoveries. The director argues that, in the context of that critical fact, whether or not he also makes a profit is immaterial.
"We could take all the human beings that are on the planet right now, and they could do nothing but dig dinosaur bones for the rest of their lives and we'd only scratch the surface, maybe get one percent," Miller says. "If Sue was collected in 1991, half the head would have been gone . . . a year earlier we never would have seen her. There’s a giant need to get out there and collect these things before they weather away."
The question that surrounds the film, as it prepares to make its way from Park City to a theater near you, is whether it will prove compelling enough to change lawmakers minds and open the West to a mining boom of a different sort. If Miller, who didn’t have a background in paleontology before getting hooked by Larson’s book Rex Appeal, is any indication, commercial diggers might be able to effectively make their case to the American public.
"You talk to these guys and they are studying the history of life on the planet," says Miller. "To understand where we're going as a . . . species, we need to know where we've been."