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A mammoth find

Carter County Museum unearths fossils on Powder River ranch


August 11, 2017

Sabre Moore

At 8 feet, the pickup bed was just long enough

A Bozeman man was fishing the Powder River in the early summer of 2016 when he stumbled upon what he believed to be a mammoth.

That man, who wishes to remain anonymous, knew about Carter County Museum (CCM)-in part because of its sister relationship with Museum of The Rockies-and made a call.

Nathan Carroll, CCM curator, was pretty excited about that call.

After contacting landowner Lee Randall, Carroll had to wait until the river was low enough, around Mid-August, to get a good look at the mammoth. He loaded up a small, local crew and together they were able to retrieve about twenty pieces of the mammoth during a one-day excursion.

Those pieces were brought back and taken to the museum's warehouse were they dried in a "sand bath." CCM director Sabre Moore explained that the sand "acted sort of a like a sponge."

"The bones were so saturated," she continued, "that if they dried to quickly they could have basically collapsed."

Those pieces were then prepped in June and July of this year. One humerus is currently on display in the museum.

It was then a long wait for Carroll and the rest of the museum staff over the winter and spring. "We had to wait for the river to go down again," Moore stated. "It went down earlier this year because of the drought."

That is perhaps the one good thing that has come from the recent drought. The timing was almost perfect. The river was low enough in July-instead of August-just in time for the Dino Shindig.

On July 22 Carroll loaded up a fairly large crew, many of whom were volunteers in town to help with the Shindig, and made the two-hour trek to Randall's Ranch on the Powder River.

It took the crew roughly three-days to unearth the mammoth. They had to build a dam to keep water away from the excavation site and also used a pump. At the end of those three long days, during which most of the crew worked dawn-to-dusk, Craig Randall used his John Deere 310D backhoe to load the skull and one tusk into the back of a pickup.

Another smaller crew went back one more day to finish the job. Once they had all of the pieces, the crew was very happy with what they had found.

"It is one of the most complete Columbian Mammoths found in Montana," Moore said. "We think that it was pretty young for a mammoth," she continued, "somewhere around 30 years old. We know that because the humerus wasn't fully fused yet." Additionally, they have dated the mammoth to somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago and are unsure of its sex.

Moore said that Carroll has some "feelers" out for researchers who are authorities on mammoths and that they will know more about it after further research and analysis has been done.

All in all, the crew unearthed the skull, both tusks, all four legs, a lot of ribs, and even some of the pelvis and vertebrate.

The mammoth is now back at Carter County Museum where prep work has already started. It will take some time to get it ready for display. That is okay with Moore and the rest of the museum staff since it's to big to put on display right now anyway.

Nathan Carroll

"We already have a plan for where to put it once we have completed our expansion," Moore explained. She is hopeful that the museum expansion project will start in 2020. Once completed, the mammoth and many other fossils and artifacts currently in the museum's warehouse can be put on display.

The museum also plans on casting some of the mammoth and gifting it back to Powder River Historical Society and Museum. Moore said that it is important for finds such as the mammoth to stay local, and that everyone at CCM is very thankful the Randall family chose Carter County Museum. Randall could have given it to a different institution, or even sold it.

Carter County Museum has had record attendance every month since December. If that trend continues, the mammoth might be on display sooner rather than later.


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