Dinosaur fossil-rich area south of Billings at heart of public vs. private debate

Les Keebler
Posted at 5:31 PM, Jun 08, 2022

BILLINGS — There’s a 100 million-year-old battle brewing in the science world between fame and money after a dinosaur found near Billings was recently sold to a private collector for $12.4 million, instead of to a museum for public display.

One man has seen the battle up close on his family's land for years.

"It was found a quarter-mile that way," Les Keebler said this week about the recent sale. "There's also dinosaurs that way, that way, some over there."

Most people wouldn’t be so nonchalant about that, but Keebler has been around dinosaurs almost all his life.

"One day early on, I sat down and ate lunch, and I was sitting next to a dinosaur bone that was six feet long," Keebler laughed.

Les Keebler land
Les Keebler points at a 'bone field' at the base of a hill on his property south of Billings.

His grandfather began homesteading on the property in Carbon County over a hundred years ago, but Keebler's dad was fascinated by paleontology.

"One time he pulled a big dinosaur bone out and set it out on the patio in town," Keebler said. "It wasn’t long until he turned his back and my mom threw it out in the trash."

Luckily, several impressive finds still remain. An almost fully intact dinosaur foot is among Keebler's most prized possessions. It was originally found on the family property by a University of Oklahoma professor who was looking for something different.

"He asked my dad if he could come out and look for prehistoric mice," Keebler laughed, "and dinosaurs kept getting in his way."

The professor did eventually find his mouse and named it after the Keebler family, and that’s important.

"They want you to donate him rather than keep him," Keebler said, "and they have to pay you off somehow. If it’s a new species, they offer to put your name on it."

Les Keebler donated a partial Tenontosaurus skeleton to the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.

A partial Tenontosaurus is currently on display at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman after Keebler decided to donate it - and yes, he’s received full credit. But private collectors will pay in cash and, nowadays, lots of it.

"There’s two different systems that don’t like each other," Keebler said of the battle between public and private buyers.

About 10 years ago, the most complete Deinonychus skeleton in existence was found on Keebler's neighbor’s property. The dinosaur, nicknamed Hector, was the inspiration for the velociraptor in Jurassic Park and smashed sale estimates at Christie’s Auction House on May 19. Scientists say it’s a disastrous trend, pricing museums out and keeping these finds from the public.

Deinonychus Christie's
A Deinonychus skeleton found in Carbon County, MT sold for $12.4 million at Christie's Auction House in May 2022

"That owner went privatization," Keebler said of his neighbor. "He started out with the academics with us. Then he found a dinosaur and figured he was going to sell it."

Q2 News isn't disclosing exactly where this land is because Keebler said there have been a number of thieves steal fossils over the years.

"Because of some of the thefts and stuff going on, I’ve shut it down," Keebler said. "I've disallowed privateers to come on, but I don’t have anything against what he did, 'cuz I might do it someday myself."

For Keebler, he’s happy to spend his days searching for something out of place, and see if it might turn out to be something extraordinary.