Photo of Brent Breithaupt with “Big Al.”  (Museum of the Rockies)
Brent Breithaupt with “Big Al.”  (Museum of the Rockies)

Who Owns Big Al?

By John P. Lee

On the afternoon of Friday the 13th in September 1991, the BLM cadastral survey staff in Wyoming was asked to perform a boundary survey immediately.  Richard (Dick) Kohler was selected as the BLM cadastral surveyor, and he and his survey crew were notified to come to work on Monday prepared to go out of town.  They did not know where they were going, just that they needed to be ready to be gone for a week. 

First thing Monday morning, there was a flurry of activity.  At the Wyoming State Office in Cheyenne, survey records were researched and instructions prepared.  This was happening as Kohler and his crew loaded up their surveying equipment and headed out from Gillette, Wyoming.  Their instructions and survey records were faxed to the Buffalo Field Office so they could pick them up there.  They then drove over the Bighorn Mountains to Shell, a small town 15 miles east of Greybull.

Photo of a scientist working with a fossilized skull.  (Museum of the Rockies)
Working with Big Al's fossilized skull.  (Museum of the Rockies)
The week before, an astute field crew from the Worland District Office noticed a newly graded road taking off from the public road.  They followed this dirt road to the end, where they found that a crew had been excavating a paleontological site.  The crew was led by a fossil hunter from Switzerland, who had found the fossil of a dinosaur.  They believed they were digging on private land.  After checking maps and aerial photographs, the BLM staff was still uncertain about the ownership of the land where the site was located.

The Worland Field Office then contacted the Wyoming State Office.  Law enforcement and cadastral survey staffs were brought into the discussion.  Two special agents from Cheyenne drove to the site on Saturday to safeguard it from fossil removal.  The survey crew arrived on the scene Monday, and was able to locate the necessary survey corners to determine the ownership of the site.  Luckily, a portion of that township had been resurveyed in 1942, and the remainder in 1967.  This made Kohler’s job a lot easier.

This site is situated in east-central Big Horn County, approximately 9 miles north-northeast of Shell, along the foot of the west slope of the Bighorn Mountains.  The terrain varies from nearly level to steep and mountainous.  It took nearly 3 days to survey the 3½ miles needed to subdivide this section.  As Kohler was performing survey calculations, using the hood of his truck as a desk, the special agents and the Swiss crew were anxiously awaiting the answer to the question:  Who owned the dinosaur later to be known as Big Al?

Photo of a group at the Big Al site.  (Museum of the Rockies)
A discussion at the Big Al site.  (Museum of the Rockies)
Big Al turned out to be a very important discovery.  The specimen was the most complete fossilized skeleton of a juvenile Allosaurus ever found.  The skeleton was about 95 percent complete and articulated, which means the major portions were found connected to each other.  In addition, when this animal was alive, it had survived about 20 injuries that can be seen in the skeleton, including some broken bones.  It was a remarkable discovery.  The Swiss crew had plans to transport it overseas.  There were rumors that it might be sold.

If the site of Big Al had been south of the east-west centerline of the southwest quarter of the section, it would have belonged to the owner of the private land.  If it were north of the east-west centerline, it would be on public land.  As it turned out, the site was located north of the boundary line by 375 feet, with a second excavation that was less than 40 feet from the boundary.  The fossil would stay in the United States.

The excavation of the skeleton was completed by a Montana State University (MSU) crew under a cooperative agreement with the BLM, with the assistance of Brent Breithaupt, University of Wyoming (UW) museum curator.  The skeleton went to the Museum of the Rockies on the MSU campus in Bozeman, Montana, and a full cast of the skeleton is on display at the UW’s Geological Museum.  Casts of Big Al’s skull (one of the most complete Allosaurus skulls ever found) can be seen in various BLM offices and museums around the world.  This area of Wyoming still produces valuable dinosaur fossils today.

John Lee has served as the chief cadastral surveyor for the Wyoming State Office since 1989.  Prior to that he worked as a cadastral surveyor in the Oregon, California, and Colorado State Offices as well as in the Headquarters Office in Washington, DC.