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Montana drought sends paleontologists to field early for largest project in state's history

June 04, 2001

BOZEMAN, Mont.--Crews working on the largest known paleontology project in Montana's history headed to the field early this year. Drought and the potential for another bad fire season sent Jack Horner and his Montana State University-Bozeman team to Eastern Montana on May 15, said Pat Leiggi, administrative director of paleontology at MSU's Museum of the Rockies. The early start means they'll be done by mid-August. Normally they would have started around the first week of June and finished at the end of August. "We are two to three weeks prior to when we normally begin and end," Leiggi said. "Hopefully, things will stay cool and we will get a bit of rain, keeping things from drying up too much. It's the dry lightning that's going to possibly cause a problem. Our top priority always is the safety of the crew."

Don Simonsen of the National Weather Service at Glasgow said this year in the Glasgow area started out to be the driest since 1931. But rains in late May and early June put its moisture levels near normal.

Jordan benefitted from the same rains, but the weather earlier this spring was "abnormally windy and dry--very dry. ... The wind has been fierce day after day after day," according to Ed Ryan, co-owner of Ryan's Grocery and Processing at Jordan. Lightning also started a fire that burned about 150 acres northwest of Brusett.

MSU is in the third year of a five-year project to survey the entire Hell Creek Formation within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, put together a team of 12 senior experts from universities all over the country to reconstruct the Hell Creek ecosystem back 65 million years. The Hell Creek Formation represents the very latest river deposits that were formed all across Montana and into the Dakotas near the end of the Cretaceous Period. The formation is best known for the T. rex and Triceratops fossils it contains.

"It's an attempt to interpret the extinct ecosystems that dinosaurs inhabited," Leiggi said of the project that's funded by several private donors. "To my knowledge, it's the largest paleontological field operation, certainly ever in Montana. I don't know any other project in paleontology history that has been this expansive. It's really kind of exciting."

The Hell Creek survey began in 1999 and will cover hundreds of miles, Leiggi said. The field crews camp in an area by the Fort Peck Reservoir within the boundaries of the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The crew averages 20 to 25 people, although the numbers reach as high as 40 and dip as low as 15 as volunteers and students come and go.

When the survey is complete in two years, crews will excavate any remaining fossils discovered from the survey and scientists will start reconstructing the ecosystem, Leiggi said. The researchers specialize in such fields as dinosaurs, mammals, plants, invertebrate fossils and geology. They include paleobotanists, a Cretaceous mammal expert and an invertebrate specialist.

The early end to this year's field season will have an additional benefit beyond the hope that workers will be able to complete their work, Leiggi continued. It will also give the MSU people time to continue working on an international conference they are hosting this fall. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology will hold its 61st annual meeting in Bozeman from Oct. 3-6. Leiggi, chairman of the host committee, said it's the first time the meeting has been held in Montana. He is expecting a record attendance of 1,300.
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Montana State University

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