IT WAS THE PROSPECTOR WHO FOUND IT FIRST. Maybe 30 years ago, back when uranium was worth a lot, when people thought nuclear power was your friend. He was working a ridge up at Spring Creek, Wyo., looking for ore with a scintillometer, a modern-day Geiger counter. He was getting a lot of hits.
But there was something else. Big, off-color rocks in strange shapes were lying loose on the ground where the wind had blown the dirt off them. The prospector was a geologist. He knew what those were. Dinosaur bones. From big dinosaurs -- like the ones that fill up museum exhibits.
The prospector knew that dinosaur bones store trace uranium from groundwater, so he couldn't tell whether there was uranium ore buried down there, and he wasn't hopeful there was: Dinosaur bones were everywhere, loose on the ground and probably a lot more down below, making his meter ping. When the prospector got home he told his partner what he'd discovered. They decided to leave the ridge alone and say nothing about it. Prospectors, if they're any good, don't talk much.
A couple of decades later, a lot had changed. The first prospector was deep into his seventies by then, and the partner, a Colorado-based geologist named Fred Groth, was almost 70 himself. Nobody was buying uranium much. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl had scared off the power companies.
For reasons not entirely clear, though, Groth in 1999 decided to tell somebody about the Spring Creek ridge. He said later it was because there was suddenly "a lot of interest in dinosaurs" after a long time when there wasn't. He said he was afraid "local people" would stumble on the ridge, figure out what it was, steal the bones and sell them. Except that bone hunters had been digging up southeastern Wyoming for almost 130 years without finding that particular outcrop.
The most important change at Spring Creek was that the property had a new owner. Groth and his partner had had a deal for access to mineral rights with Spring Creek's former owner back when they first found the dinosaurs. But they had no deal with the new one. That was Allen Cook, a cattle rancher who owned 120,000 acres in all. Spring Creek was in the extreme northwest corner of his property.
Groth started talking about the rich deposit of dinosaur bones with the University of Wyoming, down the road in Laramie, and with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He took a University of Wyoming paleontologist out for a visit.
Only then did he call Cook.
By all accounts, this was a short but volcanic conversation. "I said, 'There is a dinosaur occurrence out there,' " Groth recalled. "He wanted to know where it was, and I said I wouldn't tell him unless we had an agreement." Groth said he was concerned about preserving the bones and was thinking of "some kind of surface lease" to allow the museum or the university to develop it. "I had no interest in dealing with Mr. Cook."
Which was fortunate.
Cook, 51 in early summer 1999 and 58 today, is a soft-spoken, solitary man, polite but off-putting, with great presence. He is heavyset, strong not fat, and moves his hands slowly, almost without gesture. Anyone who meets him remembers him. He is the sort of person people want to impress without really knowing why.
Groth had made a bad impression. Even today remembered rage flares in Cook's eyes when he recalls the conversation. Cook said he concluded that Groth "just wanted to get his hands on the land so he could exploit it. I told him, 'I don't know what you're talking about, but one thing I do know is that I'm not going to donate it to you.' " They haven't spoken since.