By Ellen Thompson
Montana's tourism professionals are trying to give the industry a boost by encouraging a niche consumer - paleotourists - to visit 13 sites throughout the state. The Montana Dinosaur Trail, with locations from Bynum to Ekalaka, including one in Havre, is getting under way this month. It was organized to support local museums and promote tourism into less traveled areas of the state.
"We've been shipping out dinosaur fossils for a long time," said Victor Bjornberg, tourism development coordinator for Travel Montana. Travel Montana is a program under the state Department of Commerce. It, along with four of the state's six tourism districts, have organized the trail to tell people what paleontologists have known for a long time: Dinosaurs come from Montana.
Bjornberg said the popularity of movies such as "Jurassic Park" are evidence that there is significant public interest in dinosaurs.
People find dinosaurs in badlands, not Glacier National Park, he said, adding that paleotourists are likely to be pleased traveling to the less populated areas of the state where they can enjoy the amenities, as well as sometimes the lack of amenities, of smaller communities.
The idea first arose at a meeting in Malta of the board of one of the tourism districts, Missouri River Country, which is responsible for the northeastern portion of the state. In attendance was well-known Montana paleontologist Nate Murphy, founder of the Malta Dinosaur Field Station, who was aware through professional contacts of significant discoveries and rare exhibits in isolated communities across the state.
He suggested the Dino Trail to Missouri River Country organizers.
"They ran with the ball," Murphy said.
A year and a half later, with $26,000 in seed money from the tourism districts, the trail was organized and 150,000 brochures printed. Bjornberg is in the process of orienting museum curators and staff about their responsibilities as members of the trail.
"Before that, everyone was kind of scattered," Murphy said. "Nothing was there to tie us together to get (tourists) to visit everyone. That dinosaur trail brochure is our vehicle now."
The Dinosaur Trail kickoff will get extra attention because of the May 7 opening of the Fort Peck Interpretive Center and Museum. The center will house exhibits from nearby Fort Peck Paleontology Inc., as well as history of the Fort Peck Dam provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one of the project's sponsors, and information about local flora and fauna provided by another sponsor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The center provides a place for Fort Peck Paleontology Inc. to highlight some of its more impressive finds, particularly Peck's Rex, a Tyrannosaurus rex found nearby. The museum will house a life-size cast because the fossil is too heavy and too fragile to be displayed, said executive director Linda Sibley.
Peck's Rex is interesting to scientists because he - actually, the sex of the dinosaur has not been confirmed - has the most complete "wishbone" of any Tyrannosaurus rex found, Sibley said. He's also interesting because of bite marks apparent on the skull. Sibley said it appears that Peck's Rex did not die from his injuries because there is evidence that the injury healed and perhaps even resulted in a bone infection throughout his body, suggested by calcification of the bones. Peck's Rex also has among the most complete stomach cavities.
Murphy is continuing to work on a significant discovery in Malta, the mummified Leonardo - the world's best preserved dinosaur. The Brachylophosaurs, unusual for its young age at death, may confirm scientists' theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, Murphy said. He hopes the dinosaur's heart has been preserved. Four chambers would indicate that it was warm-blooded, he said. The dinosaur's last meal has already been analyzed.
Bynum's Two Medicine Dinosaur Center houses the world's largest full-size skeletal model of a Seismosaurus halli, which was the largest dinosaur species.
The Dinosaur Trail's other sites also display rarities, such as Ekalaka's complete Triceratops horridus skull display, and its Anatotitan copei skeleton, one of three in the world.
Other trail sites are in Glendive, Jordan, Harlowton, Choteau, and the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman.
The Bozeman museum boasts the largest collection of U.S.-excavated fossils, and eggs from the world-famous Egg Mountain near Choteau.
Havre's H. Earl Clack Museum made the list because of its display of dinosaur eggs and a Lamebeosaur (duck bill dinosaur) embryo.
"It's another aspect of the dinosaur story in Montana and helps people understand the Bear Paw sea" that once covered the area, Bjornberg said.
Visitors can participate in paleontology field digs at the sites in Glendive, Fort Peck, Malta, Choteau, Bynum and Bozeman. People who are interested should contact the programs individually for details.
Amy Salveson is curator of the Phillips County Museum in Malta, which houses one of Murphy's discoveries, Elvis, a Brachylophosaurus that is one of the best articulated dinosaur skeletons ever excavated.
She said the trail will be targeted at amateurs. "This would give the layperson a better idea, a road map to follow," she said. "The scientists are not our everyday visitor."
A Web site for the Montana Dinosaur Trail will be available next month at www.mtdinotrail.org.