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What to do with Dakota: State negotiating to keep mummified Marmarth dinosaur in Heritage Center

FNS Photo by Mike Nowatzki The fossilized remains of a rare mummified hadrosaur nicknamed Dakota are displayed Monday in the main corridor of the newly expanded North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. The fossil will be on display to the public when the museum's first two galleries open April 28.

BISMARCK — The future of a rare mummified dinosaur discovered in North Dakota and now prominently displayed in the state’s newly expanded Heritage Center hinges on negotiations between its owner and the State Historical Society, which wants to keep the fossil in Bismarck.

“It’s an iconic fossil for the state of North Dakota and that’s why we’re working so hard to keep it here,” State Paleontologist John Hoganson said.

Tyler Lyson was just a sophomore in high school when he discovered the duck-billed hadrosaur fossil in 1999 on his uncle’s ranch near Marmarth in southwestern North Dakota.

Excavation was completed in 2006, and a wave of publicity followed, including a National Geographic documentary and a “Good Morning America” piece about the fossil, nicknamed Dakota.

Under an arrangement with Lyson, the fossil was prepared at the Heritage Center’s paleontology lab in exchange for the museum being allowed to keep it until July 1, 2015.

Historical Society Director Merl Paaverud said Friday that the state wants to enter into a $3 million agreement with Lyson and the Marmarth Research Foundation to allow the Heritage Center to display the fossil permanently, but he said the state hasn’t received a response to the offer.

“To get an answer has been very difficult,” he said.

Hoganson called the negotiations complicated but ongoing.

“I think everybody wants to be real careful and make sure that everything is done properly and everybody’s happy with it,” he said.

Lyson, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Institution, said via email Monday that the parties are working to keep the fossil at the Heritage Center and establish a Marmarth Research Foundation endowment fund that would be used to fund public digs, build up research collections, train students and further advance the field of vertebrate paleontology.

Lyson, who is president and director of the foundation, acknowledged the process “has been slow.” He noted that the foundation is a small nonprofit with unpaid staff and directors and that he has been busy applying for postdoctoral positions and jobs, “and I have been prioritizing that over this particular agreement.

“We are, however, moving ahead,” he said.

Dakota first went on display at the Heritage Center in June 2008, when one arm and the tail section of the 65-million-year-old hadrosaur were exhibited near the main gallery entrance, said Chris Johnson, museum division director. The fossil remained there until the summer of 2009, when it was shipped to Japan to be featured in a 10-week exhibit.

Dakota then came back to the Heritage Center, and the tail and arm went back on display until fall 2012, when work began on the main gallery as part of the $51.7 million Heritage Center expansion and renovation project.

Now, the fully prepared fossil, including the main body section, will be a showpiece in the main corridor of the new museum section when two of its galleries open to the public on April 28. The roughly 7,000 pounds of rock and fossil are displayed atop a wood base with a Plexiglas wall around it, Johnson said.

Hoganson said the nearly complete fossil is “very rare” because its actual skin was mineralized and preserved, as opposed to other fossils found with skin impressions merely left in the surrounding rock.

“There’s very few of these things that have been found anywhere in the world,” he said.

An agreement to keep the fossil at the Heritage Center would trigger a fundraising campaign to raise the $3 million, Hoganson said. There are no plans at this time to seek state funds, he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.