An en banc Ninth Circuit panel in May asked the Montana Supreme Court to weigh in on the question of who owns a set of valuable Montana dinosaur bones.
The federal appeals court said it can't decide whether dinosaur fossils are part of the surface estate or the mineral estate under Montana law because the state high court has never addressed the question.
"Whether dinosaur fossils belong to the surface estate or the mineral estate under Montana law presents important public policy ramifications for Montana that have not yet been resolved by the Montana Supreme Court," the en banc panel said in its ruling. "Given the frequency of divided ownership of Montana surface and mineral estates, and that Montana possesses vast deposits of valuable vertebrate fossil specimens, the issue is substantial and of broad application."
The ruling reversed a three-judge panel's 2-1 finding from November that BEJ Minerals LLC and RTWF LLC are the rightful owners of the dueling dinosaurs and other valuable prehistoric specimens including an intact Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton and a well-preserved triceratops skull.
The 2019 Montana Legislature passed a law signed by Gov. Steve Bullock in April establishing that dinosaur fossils are part of surface estates. The en banc panel, however, said the law does not affect penalties that were incurred or proceedings in courts that were begun before the law took effect.