BOZEMAN, MONT. -- Strangers have forever been coming to dig precious things out of Montana's ancient dirt -- sapphires, copper, fossils -- and carting them away.
Not this time. A museum right here, with exhibits that can run to barbed wire, frontier fashions and Rocky Mountain stargazing, has pulled off the grand slam, the Triple Crown, the Academy Award of saurian paleontology: the biggest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found.
It is a handsome textbook specimen, and "just about everybody would like to have it," says Pat Leiggi, project coordinator for the Museum of the Rockies. "But it's ours."
Kathy and Tom Wankel are the Montana ranching couple who turned it up on a bone-hunting outing in the Montana Badlands some time back, unearthing a bit with a garden shovel and jackknife. The first complete bone Kathy Wankel found turned out to be the first complete T-Rex arm anyone had ever found.
When they somewhat diffidently drove it over to the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University and found out what it was, "we wanted it to stay here," says Kathy Wankel.
"I think it's kind of a sore spot that all these out-of-staters come and take the bones out and we get nothing for it," she says. "I'm a true Montanan. And we need some nice, clean tourist industry."
Montana is a perfect bone-yard of dinosaurs. Wherever else they lived, this was an excellent place for them to die, preserved in 65 million years worth of clay soil. For decades, fossils have been dug up and carried off to big-name, big-bucks institutions. Six of the seven T-Rex skeletons ever found were found in Montana. This one, which the Wankel boys call Mr. T, is the first to stay.
"For other museums and programs to take things out of the state seemed perfectly justified," says Leiggi. "But now we're part of this network," and "people are proud of the fact that not only is the dinosaur recognized as being from Montana but is staying in Montana."
The paleontology department has gone from zero to bingo in a handful of years, thanks to renowned paleontologist John Horner, a Montana native who years ago went off to Princeton to work. He came back home to dig, but whatever treasures he found he took away with him. When some fellow Montanans called him a "grave robber," Leiggi says Horner answered, "When there's a job for me to come home to, I'll come back."
In 1982, he did, creating the first true paleontology department in the state. Horner's groundbreaking work in baby dinosaurs, in habitat and nesting behavior, has helped to forge a world-class department. Yet for all its reputation among peers, the Museum of the Rockies does not exactly top the nation's vacation itineraries.
Ah, but wait. T-Rex was not even out of the ground and the public was wild to see this screaming tabloid of a dinosaur, the big megillah, with teeth like daggers and an appetite like a sawmill. It's like Leiggi says: You turn up a new duckbill, discover a colony of maiasaurs, and people say, that's nice. "The Wankels find a T-Rex and the world gets excited overnight."