Montana cattleman Clayton Phipps is living off the land – by digging up T. rex skeletons.
Credit: Photograph by Jose Mandojana

Clayton Phipps hikes along a prairie ridge near Jordan, Montana, staring at the ground. Ancient tributaries of the Missouri River have carved the landscape into a comb of dry ravines and flat-topped buttes. It's a barren and sandy place – but one that holds a coveted treasure. Phipps, 40, squats and plucks a blackish nub from the dirt, and when he blows away the dust, a tiny specimen of bone appears: the remnants of a mammal's skull, left here millions of years ago when Montana held an ancient sea. "This little jaw could be worth 100 bucks," he says.

With the average Montana ranch hand making about $25,000 a year, some locals, like Phipps – a third-generation cowboy who runs 40 head of Black Angus cattle on a small family ranch – have viewed the area's rich bone deposits as a better way to make a living. (The region is an unusually accessible dinosaur-bone field, owing to its ex­posed Cretaceous rock, known as the Hell Creek Formation, and lack of vegetation. The first-known Tyrannosaurus rex was excavated here in 1902.) Last year, Phipps made international headlines when his "duel­ing dinosaur" fossils – a tyrannosaurid and a horned ceratopsian locked in battle, which he'd excavated near here – were expected to fetch $7 million at Bonhams auction house in New York.

Although the bones didn't sell immediately, the moment was a breakthrough for Phipps: Just nine years ago, he was broke and on the verge of giving up. "My tractor tire was flat, I didn't have a way to move the dirt except with my pick and shovel, and it was freezing cold outside," he says. "Everything was looking like God didn't want me to do this." Lisa, his wife of 20 years and a former teacher at a one-room schoolhouse, thought that maybe it was time for him to go back to ranching full-time. "But then I walked up the hill and found a big tooth," he says, referring to a $2,500 T. rex incisor, "and I was back in business."

Dinosaur hunters like Phipps have drawn ire from the scientific community for selling bones to private collectors. (Some paleontologists contend the fossils should be carefully extracted and then studied in museums for clues about early life on Earth.) But according to U.S. law, dinosaur bones found on private land are private property. Their commercial sale is nothing new: In the late 19th century, profit-seeking hunters peddled fossils to the highest bidder, according to Paul D. Brinkman, a paleontology historian at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. "It wasn't controversial," he says. By the 1920s, though, museum officials had decided that sending their own paleontologists into the field to take the specimens was more efficient, and the treasures of Hell Creek were often carted off without a word.

That dynamic shifted in the 1990s when commercial hunters found an outstanding T. Rex specimen in South Dakota, with its skull still full of teeth. The skeleton sold at auction for more than $8 million and went to Chicago's Field Museum. "As soon as people heard this fossil was worth that much, the gold rush began," says Catherine Forster, a paleontology professor at George Washington University. For years, scientists had been largely alone in digging on the plains. But with the news of the million-dollar T. rex, they had to share their work with anyone possessing a shovel and a dream. Now dinosaur hunting is overseen by landowners, who allow bone diggers to scour their property for at least a 10 percent cut.

"I'm not trying to brag," Phipps says as he chops away at an embankment with a fillet knife, "but I just think I probably have more experience than most academics in finding and collecting dinosaurs. If they come out for a two-week stint, they say it's a big fossil expedition." Whereas many university grant–funded expeditions involve 20-person teams kitted out with laptops and jackhammers, Phipps often roams the badlands with nothing more than a GPS unit and a shovel. His success is due to his natural eye – he grew up scouring the hills for arrowheads and other artifacts – and years of homework on dinosaur anatomy: He has amassed a small library of paleontology books. For Phipps and fellow hunters like Mark Eatman – a former flooring salesman in Billings – an expedition means they're digging almost every day when the weather's good – and sometimes even when it's not. In his first few years of dino hunting, Phipps went on forays in the wintertime, when the ground was frozen stiff. "I've spent some pretty miserable seasons out here," he says. Some cold mornings, he has to chisel through a thick layer of frost just to get where he can dig. "The steel on this has worn down probably two inches since I started," Phipps says about his shovel. "If a rancher told me to dig that many postholes, I'd tell him to go fly a kite."

Digging bones is a grueling business. Most days Phipps hopes to find at least $200 worth of fossils, enough to fuel his pickup and pay a cut to the landowner. Late in the day, he finds a coffee-colored scute – the armor plate of an ancient ankylosaur – that he says is worth $300. But first he has to take it home to his makeshift lab, where he'll spend some 30 hours blasting off sand and grit to prep the piece for sale. About 40 miles northwest of Jordan – where a painted sign on the main drag warns meth trashes your dreams – Phipps walks past his six-year-old son's muddy Spider-Man bicycle and through his front door. Downstairs from the living room is his dinosaur lab – a small work area with X-Acto knives, debonder, and a dental office's microblaster. He shows off some replicas of his most important finds. One is a T. rex tooth the size of a banana and with the serrations of a steak knife. In the dino trade, carnivores command the highest prices; this tooth sold for $10,000 on the open market. "People want the meat eaters," Phipps says. "They want the teeth."

Phipps has several options for selling bones. He can move the fossil to a private dealer or put it up on eBay. Bigger, more impressive pieces may be consigned to an auction house or shipped to a yearly gem-and-mineral show in Tucson – a massive marketplace for fossil collectors. While most bones for sale in Tucson come from law-abiding fossil hunters like Phipps, the show also attracts an unofficial black market, wherein rare and smuggled dinosaur bones – pieces illegally collected on U.S. public land or from the country of Mongolia, which has a ban on exports – are sold in hotel suites. Illicit dealing is a growing problem: According to one expert, 98 skeletons of the coveted Tarbosaurus bataar have been poached from Mongolia's Gobi Desert, and in 2012, a Florida dealer pleaded guilty to the unlawful import of a fortune's worth of tarbosaurs and hadrosaurs. (The skull of one reportedly sold to actor Nicolas Cage for $276,000.) And then there are the clever reproductions, fake-a-saurs from China and Morocco, sold to unsuspecting amateurs. Even National Geographic fell victim to one of these – a supposed "missing link" between the dinosaurs and modern birds that sold in Tucson for $80,000. The skeleton turned out to be a mix of bones from different species.

In the midst of all these fossil-dealing frauds, Phipps stands out for his integrity – and his string of amazing, world-class finds. In June 2003, he excavated a "freaky critter" – a horned Stygimoloch dinosaur that looks as though it were designed for an episode of Game of Thrones – and sold it for more than $100,000. "I never thought I'd find a better dinosaur than that," he says. "I figured that I'd peaked." But then in 2006, Phipps made his greatest discovery of all. With fellow fossil hunter Eatman, Phipps came across a massive pelvis peeking from a sandstone cliff. He soon found some vertebrae behind it, and then a skull and limbs – and, finally, as he cleared away the overburden with his uncle's backhoe, he bumped into a second dinosaur lying just beside the first. A tableau like this – with predator and prey in such close proximity – had been found only once before, and Phipps' discoveries were brilliantly preserved, with the fossils even showing patches of the ancient monsters' skin. One skull was partly crushed, and the other seemed to have a tooth embedded in its spine – as if the pair had been frozen at the moment of fatal combat. "It's one of the best finds ever," says Phipps. "I mean, this is the Mona Lisa of dinosaurs."

Phipps' dueling dinosaurs could be worth several million dollars – a potentially life-changing amount – but he hasn't yet been able to identify a buyer. Last November at Bonhams, in Manhattan – where the bidding stopped at $5.5 million – the bones didn't reach the minimum asking price and therefore didn't sell. The big museums say they don't have the cash to make the purchase, and private collectors have so far stayed away. ("It's a lot of work to sell a couple of dinosaurs for millions of dollars," says Eatman.) But Phipps remains optimistic. He's got a seven-foot triceratops skull that he's taking down to Tucson. And then there's another T. rex – a "nice one" – he helped dig up from a Hell Creek rancher's land that will probably sell for millions of dollars. "It's the American dream," he says, driving his muddy 4x4 through cattle, his equipment rattling in the rear seat. "In the back of your mind, you're always looking for the next T. rex. Or the next fighting dinosaurs – I mean, you couldn't dream that up."