By Hayley Young
Ranchers and farmers across the Great West spend their time caring for and working their land—the land that feeds their livestock and fills their grain bins each year; the same land that, in many cases, has been passed down from generation to generation. One does not often associate agriculture and paleontology but for guys like Clayton Phipps, it is a melding of two passions.
Clayton and wife, Lisa, live on a small family ranch in Brusett, located in Garfield County. They have three children, Julie, Daniel, and Luke. Clayton always thought he would be a cattle rancher; it’s in his blood and it’s the way of life he knows best. But these days he spends his free time in the dinosaur business.
How it all Began
Clayton’s love of prospecting started when he was just a young lad helping on his family ranch. He recalls that he and his brother would look for arrowheads. These small treasures gave him “an eye for looking for things.”
His interest in dinosaur fossils didn’t pique until years later. A fossil hunter had been prospecting on the property of a rancher Clayton was working for, and what he found that day had a value of about $500. That caught Clayton’s attention, and his fossil hunting career took off. He has been on the hunt for twenty+ years and has some special finds under his belt.
In 2004, Clayton found the most complete skull, to date, of a Stygimoloch. Stygimoloch was a small species of herbivore, approximately three feet tall with a domed, spike-covered skull. It was the find that first put Clayton on the map. A replica of this skull is on display at the Garfield County Museum in his hometown of Jordan.
The “Dueling Dinosaurs” is arguably one of the greatest fossil discoveries. A fatal match between a Nanotyrannus and a Triceratops. The predator and prey died in battle and were entombed together for 66 million years, protected by the hardened sandstone of the Hell Creek Formation until 2006, when the dinosaurs were unearthed.
Clayton, his cousin Chad O’Connor, and his friend Mark Eatman set out on a fossil hunt. Chad had been after Clayton for some time to tag along. The trio discovered what appeared to be a pelvis at the end of a trail of bone fragments. A femur bone was positioned in the pelvis just like it should have been. They called it a day and left the site.
Clayton had mentally marked the area on property belonging to Lige and Mary Ann Murray. With some urging from Chad and a feeling that more of that dinosaur could still be laying there, they returned to the rugged canyon area. With a little more digging they unearthed a vertebra and a tail. The bones were laid in position just like the dinosaur had died.
Once the position of the dinosaur was mapped out, Clayton used a backhoe to remove excess dirt to help expose the boundary. While meticulously eyeing each bucket of dirt, something caught his eye. He crawled out of the equipment and quickly realized the claw he found did not belong to the dinosaur they were working on. When describing the pure joy of discovering a second dinosaur, Clayton says, “I threw my hat in the air!”
Concerned with the effects of a Montana winter on exposed fossils, Clayton and Chad went straight to work with intermittent help from family and friends like Mark, who offered a hand on weekends. They were able to excavate both dinosaurs over a three-month period.
“I lost fifteen pounds that summer,” says Clayton.