The Museum at Black Hills Institute (117 Main St., 605/574-4289, www.bhigr.com , summer Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–7 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.–6 p.m., winter Mon.–Sat. 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m., Sun. noon–4 p.m., adult $7.50, child 6–15 $4, child 5 and under free) was organized in 1991. Its mission was “to collect, conserve, curate and display extraordinary geological and natural history specimens that have the power to educate, enlighten, and excite people about the wonders of the natural world.”
The story of the museum and of the founders of the related Black Hills Institute of Geological Research is fascinating, though somewhat tragic—and involves the infamous Sue, a Tyrannosaurus rex who was found in 1990. Since then, the Institute and the museum have been involved in the excavation and preservation of eight T. rex skeletons. Today, the most complete and the most-studied T. rex, Stan, is on display at the museum. Other displays include ammonites, minerals, and fossil remains of many other dinosaurs, including duck-billed dinosaurs and triceratops.
The Institute has a large catalog of fossil replicas for sale. A replica of Stan costs around $100,000; his skull alone is $9,500.
Sometimes a sense what is fair and what is legal clash in outrageous ways. This is the story of Sue, a Tyrannosaurus rex discovered on the plains of South Dakota. Sue was a fearsome discovery: 65 million years old, she was 41 feet long and stood 12 feet high at her hips. One of the most significant paleontological discoveries of all time, Sue was also one of its most controversial.
The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, owners of The Museum at Black Hills Institute in Hill City , can trace its origins back to 1974, when two young men took over an entity called Black Hills Minerals. The original owners, Pete Larson and James Honert, were later joined by Pete’s brother Neal and mineralogist Bob Farrar.
In 1979, members of the Institute were invited out to Ruth Mason’s ranch near Faith, South Dakota, to research a large cache of dinosaur bones that she had found as a child. For the next decade, the Institute worked at the ranch collecting bones. Eventually over 10,000 bones were recovered and 10 complete duck-billed dinosaur skeletons were assembled from the Mason Quarry dig site. The Institute earned a reputation for quality excavation and preservation of bones and the skeletons they reconstructed eventually resided in prestigious museums, including the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
During one of the annual digs, a neighboring rancher took an interest in the work going on at the Mason Ranch and reputedly invited the Institute to survey his land for evidence of fossils or dinosaurs. Institute members did some brief surveys of exposed formations over the years but it wasn’t until August 12, 1990, that they hit the jackpot.
Towards the end of the season of digging at the Quarry, one of the volunteers at the Mason dig site, Susan Hendrickson, decided to hike over to the neighboring ranch for another look. It was then that Susan found the bones of a dinosaur, weathering out at the base of a 50-foot cliff. The bones belonged to a Tyrannosaurus rex who was named Sue in honor of her discoverer.
It was an exciting time for the Institute. The rancher was notified of the find and he gave the team permission to remove the 29 feet of mountain resting on top of the bones. On August 14, the Institute gave the rancher $5,000 and the dig was on. For the rest of the month, Sue was videotaped, documented, filmed, mapped, and drawn at each phase of the excavation. By September 1, all of the bones had been removed, including a block of stone and bone that weighed over 10,000 pounds.
For the next 20 months, members of the Institute cleaned, separated, and worked to preserve the bones of Sue and the other specimens found with her, and they shared their discovery with the world. Working with paleontologists, the Institute sent bones to Denver for research and arranged a CAT scan of Sue’s skull with NASA to allow scientists to study the inside of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull for the first time. Paleontologists from around the world had been invited to help in the research and, by early 1992, 34 had signed up to help. One week before Sue’s skull was to be shipped out for her CAT scan, work on Sue came to a grinding halt.
On the morning of May 14, Pete Larson was at his home behind the Institute and heard a shout from one of his employees telling him to get down to the Institute immediately. When he walked over to the facility, he discovered over 35 law enforcement officers and FBI agents swarming the Institute and serving a warrant to confiscate Sue and all the documents and research related to her excavation. According to the paperwork, Sue now belonged to the U.S. government.
Despite pleas to leave the fossil on-site and to allow research to continue while her ownership was researched, three days later, Sue was packed in crates and with the help of the National Guard was shipped to the basement of the School of Mines in Rapid City . Years of lawsuits followed.
Eventually the courts determined that Sue was real estate, and the Institute discovered that while the rancher’s name was on the title of the land, the land was held in trust with the U.S. government. The court ruled that this real estate called Sue could not be sold without the government’s permission and thus ruled that the original sale was null and void. The Institute lost Sue.
It only got worse from there. The federal government then filed suit against members of the Institute and the recovery team with a 39-count, 153-charge indictment for the illegal collection of fossils unrelated to Sue. Pete Larson was found guilty of two felonies for failure to report carrying currency over $10,000 in and out of the country, and for two misdemeanors for theft of government property worth less than $100. Similar verdicts were issued for the other defendants. Pete Larson was sentenced to a two-year prison term. He was the only defendant to go to jail.
In the meantime, the government gave the rancher permission to put Sue on the auction block. She sold for a record $8.36 million.