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Horner's old stomping grounds

Long before the Old Sorehead came to Rudyard - long before there even was a Rudyard - north-central Montana was a subtropical paradise, filled with trees, vegetation and large meandering rivers. To the west the young Rockies were being slowly lifted into the sky, and to the east lapped the western edge of an inland sea stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. Cradled in between was a low coastal plain teeming with crocodiles, turtles and dinosaurs.

"It would have been not a very good place for people," said world-renowned paleontologist Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman. "Just about everything would have wanted to eat you."

Horner will be coming to Rudyard on Monday to summon that prehistoric world back for his listeners in a public lecture and slide show at Blue Sky High School. His presentation, "Old Dead Dinosaurs," will raise money for the expansion of the Rudyard Depot Museum that will house, among other things, a replica of the nearly complete skeleton of a duck-billed dinosaur - a gryposaurus - excavated at an area farm.

The skeleton was a rare find. Although this area was filled with duck-billed dinosaurs 75 million years ago, Horner said, the ideal conditions for preserving them were hard to come by. If a dinosaur died on the plain it would disintegrate before it could be preserved, and if it died in the river, it was often torn up by the force of the current. But in the floodplain between the two extremes, a dinosaur could die straight into a muddy riverbank, where it would be covered by flood deposits. If that happened, there was a chance that millions of years later it would be found by a pick-bearing mammal and immortalized.

It would have to be found first - an unlikely event. Over time, forces like volcanic activity and erosion churned and scattered the layers of the earth like pieces of a vast geological puzzle, until most of that warmer world was buried under newer, colder dirt. But from the Harlem area west to about Chester, the ancient rock layer known as the Judith River Formation comes to the surface like a vein of precious metal to tantalize those pre-eminent miners of ancient history, the paleontologists.

It tantalized a young Jack Horner growing up in Shelby. His mother used to take him to the badlands north of Havre, where he found tyrannosaur teeth, toe bones, and other small finds.

"I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was 8 years old," Horner said. "There's never been a point in my life when I wanted to be anything else."

He attended college and graduate school at the University of Montana and participated in digs as both an undergraduate and a graduate student.

"The first place I actually worked was north of Rudyard, where we're working now," he said.

Since then, Horner has been to digs all over the world and across Montana, many of them on the Hi-Line. He has discovered new kinds of dinosaurs and fulfilled his dream of building a "world-class museum" to house dinosaur bones. He has even made forays into the entertainment industry, acting as a consultant for the "Jurassic Park" movies.

Horner still takes time to get back to where he started, in the Hi-Line dirt. A paleontologist has to know where to look, but finding the bones themselves is still a challenge.

"To find a dinosaur, it is basically luck," he said. "You go to the right place where the right age rock is exposed. After that you just walk around and hope you find something."

One of the places where paleontologists have been lucky is on Dan and Lila Redding's farm near the Canadian border, where a family friend first discovered bones in 1974. Since then the Reddings have allowed paleontologists, researchers and graduate students to conduct digs on their land.

In the summer of 2002, some friends of the Reddings discovered a large vertebra on the property that turned out to be part of a nearly complete skeleton of a duck-billed dinosaur. Horner led the team that excavated the dinosaur last summer. The team also found a second skeleton that it will finish excavating this summer.

Finds like these help Horner learn more about what the animals were like when they were alive.

"I'm interested in figuring out as much as I can about the life of a dinosaur, the lives of particular kinds of dinosaurs," he said. "Duck-billed dinosaurs are the most common dinosaurs. If you're going to find out about the lives of dinosaurs you need to find about the ones that are common. They allow us to piece together a pretty good picture of what they were like as living animals."

After specimens are excavated, they are carefully taken to Montana State University-Bozeman, where Horner and his colleagues use a variety of techniques to examine the composition of the bones to learn about the dinosaur's age, life-cycle, physiology and behavior. Horner said they know the gryposaurus ate plants - conifers, mostly. They traveled in herds, and avoided predators like the raptorlike saurornitholestes.

Horner said he plans to make an exact replica of the skeleton for the Depot Museum. Making the replica will cost thousands of dollars, which Horner said he will raise himself. It may be a few years before it's ready for display, he said.

"But in the meantime we will encourage (the museum) to get some security in there, and we'll get some real fossils in there," he said.

Jim Roen, president of the Rudyard Historical Society, said the museum is fairly large now, filling about three-quarters of a block. It is mostly dedicated to more recent Hi-Line history, and only has a small display with fossils.

If everything goes smoothly, the addition will be dedicated to natural history and will include the replica of the gryposaurus skeleton, affectionately named "the Oldest Sorehead" after the honorary title traditionally bestowed on Rudyard's crustiest curmudgeon.

"Basically we were flat running out of space where we were at now, and with this new natural history scenario we needed to increase our space, and we needed to house the dinosaur and some other things that we have coming up in the future," Roen said.

The expansion has been planned for about 18 months. After the first skeleton was discovered, Horner and the Reddings approached the Rudyard Historical Society to see if it would be interested in housing a replica of it, said Beth Roen, secretary of the historical society and wife of Jim Roen.

The details, like whether the skeleton will be a free-standing model or part of a display that shows what it looked like when it was discovered, will be decided later. Horner said a re-creation of the dig site would be more educational, while Jim Roen said he prefers the free-standing version so people get a better idea of what the dinosaur looked like when it was alive.

The addition, which will fill out the rest of the block if a land sale can be finalized, will cost somewhere between $35,000 and $45,000, Jim Roen said. He said about half the money has already been raised from donations.

The Rudyard Depot Museum is not alone in its efforts to get a dinosaur exhibit. Horner said that although the most scientifically valuable fossils are generally kept in Bozeman, since the 1980s fossils have been sent home to other museums in small communities near where they were found. Horner said he has helped raise money for small museums around Montana. His only requirement is that the museums provide adequate security.

"Some of these fossils are worth millions and millions of dollars, and you can't just put them where people can walk off with them," he said.

Horner hopes that smaller collections like the ones across the Hi-Line will eventually be coordinated with the new 18,000- square-foot dinosaur hall being built at the Museum of the Rockies.

"It's going to be one of the largest and certainly most comprehensive dinosaur collections in the world," Horner said. "It's fitting that it's in Montana. Because it's where all of them come from, all the best ones."

He wants the exhibits in Bozeman to highlight the collections of smaller museums, so that people visiting the Bozeman museum will find out about other exhibits in the state that complement the one they're looking at.

"They can actually go see more of it at a museum like the one in Rudyard or the one in Glendive or the one in Malta or Browning," he said.

The dinosaurs may be 75 million years old, but Horner and other advocates of small museums hope they can still snatch prey off the highway: tourists.

"Dinosaurs are important in Montana, and it's important for the science, important for education. It's important for all sorts of things," Horner said. "But being from the Hi-Line myself, I know how hard it is to get people to stop and see anything." The dinosaurs, he said, may help do that.

While he hopes better museums do get people to stop, it is the residents of the Hi-Line communities who are at the heart of Horner's vision. Especially residents like he was: children with big imaginations.

"I think it's really important for kids growing up to have some sense of not only the history of their region, the history of their town and their little geographic areas, but to have a sense of the prehistory," he said. "Don't take it back just a hundred years. Take it back a billion years. So people get a sense and a pride for the region they live in."

Horner's presentation begins Monday at 7 p.m. at the old gymnasium at Blue Sky School in Rudyard. His talk will feature slides and fossils excavated in the local area.

Admission is $5 per adult. Children get in free, and donations are welcome.

 

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