Office of External Affairs
Mountain-Prairie Region


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Mountain-Prairie Region
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

November 22, 2010

Contacts: Bill Berg, (406) 539-8706

               Matt deRosier (406) 464-5181


Bow hunter Discovers Rare Prehistoric Sea Creature on Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge



When most Montana residents and visitors hear the name Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, often their first thoughts turn to big game hunting. During the fall archery season, a bow hunter searching for an elk on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge found something he was not actually looking for; the fossilized bones of a rare prehistoric sea creature called a plesiosaur.  Dave Bradt of Florence, Montana notified the Refuge Headquarters in Lewistown of the discovery right away.  The find is scientifically significant and promises to add to our knowledge about the remote past in what is now Montana.  


The historical record of the refuge is relatively well known and documented:  Native American use, the voyage of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the era of outlaws and homesteaders, and now present day hunting, fishing and visiting the Elk Viewing Area to witness the spectacular fall colors and hear the sound of elk bugling.  Less known to many is the refuge’s extensive prehistoric record.


Located in a remote section of the refuge, the plesiosaur was found in approximately 75 million year old dirt/rock.  Part of the neck had been exposed by erosion, while much of the rest of the body is enclosed in a large rock or concretion.  Plans are under way for properly excavating and removing the specimen in order to obtain as much scientific information as possible from the fossil and from its context in the marine sediments. 


According to Ken Olson of Lewistown Montana, Research Associate in Paleontology, The Museum of the Rockies, MSU, Bozeman, plesiosaurs were a group of marine reptiles that were contemporary to the dinosaurs.  When the dinosaurs dominated the land, these creatures thrived in what is called the Cretaceous Seaway of North America.  Seventy-five million years ago, that sea extended from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico.  The boundaries fluctuated but, at its greatest extent, it was a thousand miles wide from the rising Rocky Mountains in the west to what is now the state of Minnesota to the east.


Like modern day whales, plesiosaurs were air breathers.  They oared through the sea with their four paddles, catching fish and other prey with well-toothed jaws on the end of long necks.  There were several varieties.  The largest plesiosaurs ranged up to 40 feet in length and could have nearly 70 neck vertebra.  This discovery on the Charles M Russell NWR is of one of the smaller types and is believed to have between 19 and 26 neck vertebra.


The CMR is very excited about this most recent find as there have been very few prehistoric marine reptiles found on the Refuge.  Over the winter months, there will be continued consultation with various paleontological experts and agency staff to determine the most feasible course of action for the site and specimen.  If excavated, the specimen will remain in the permanent custody of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and either be made available for public display and education or utilized for further scientific study.


Over the winter months, the Refuge staff will continue to ensure that the site remains protected and is not disturbed or damaged.  Such resources are protected under the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act.  In general, a person may not “excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface or attempt to excavate, remove, damage, or otherwise alter or deface any paleontological resources located on Federal land unless such activity is conducted in accordance with this act.  Paleo sites, as well as all other natural artifacts, are protected on National Wildlife Refuges. The destruction, injury, defacement, disturbance or the unauthorized removal of any public property including natural objects on or from a National Wildlife is prohibited. 


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