HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's university system has reversed its decision to pay $2 million for the archaeological and paleontological rights to a ranch that two state agencies purchased late last year.
The system didn't have the money to make the purchase and it was difficult to determine how much the rights are worth at the site in north-central Montana, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian told the Board of Regents on Thursday.
Regent Jeffrey Knauss of Bozeman said buying the rights to dig for dinosaur fossils and Indian artifacts would set a precedent.
"We don't buy fossils and we don't buy collecting rights to fossils," Knauss said.
Regent Pat Williams of Missoula suggested the panel was mistakenly passing up world-class resources that will eventually be sold to someone else. He said Notre Dame University, with students and professors who have done a number of digs in Montana, is interested.
"The Treasure State will have sold off another treasure when he had a chance to hold it," Williams said. "I don't want people to say, when they had a pool of money, they let this treasure go and claimed the lack of money as a reason."
In November, the regents agreed to pay $2 million for the rights that brothers Verges and David Aageson retained after selling 3,000 acres to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department for $4.7 million, and an adjacent 1,500 acres to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for $1.1 million.
FWP plans to open the 3,000 acres to hunting and fishing, while DNRC is leasing the land back to the Aagesons for farming, with the lease money going to fund schools.
A restraining order to stop the regents from spending the $2 million was sought by state Sen. Jon Brenden, R-Scobey, and Rudyard-area rancher Daniel Redding.
The money would have come from a special appropriation by the 2011 Legislature intended for university research.
A Bozeman judge temporarily blocked the use of $900,000 in university research funds while the University of Montana and Montana State University agreed not to spend the $1.1 million in funding already received.
Ranchers living near the Aagesons sought to delay the sale, saying the decision was being made too quickly and the state was paying too much.
After the sale went through, several ranchers protested by closing their land to hunting and fishing.