The purchase of archaeological and paleontological rights to the Milk River Ranch by the Montana University System remains on hold while they cautiously investigate whether the acquisition fits their needs.

Higher Education Commissioner Clayton Christian told the Board of Regents on Tuesday that unlike normal items, the Milk River Ranch purchase moved through their process “fairly quickly” before being approved by the board in November.

He noted, however, that the board gave him and University of Montana President Royce Engstrom the authority to evaluate the purchase and move forward if it’s in the best interest of the university system.

“We have proceeded with caution for a number of reasons,” Christian said.

He said they are evaluating the value of the property and how the university system could financially support the project if it’s something they decided to do. They also are considering how this might will affect tribal relationships and how it would best fit within the university system.

“We haven’t signed a document to date that’s committed us to anything and have no rights to anything,” Christian added. “There’s no scratch of a pen or anything to move this forward. We haven’t spent a dime of university system money, other than staff time.

“We are not out over our skis on this even as some would like to think. We are moving forward and ultimately will come back with some recommendations, but are relatively stalled out at this point in time and I think that’s fine.”

At its November meeting, the board agreed to pay Verges and David Aageson $2 million for the rights to archaeological and paleontological artifacts on their ranch. The brothers retained those rights after the sale of 2,992 acres to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks for $4.7 million, which will be used as a Wildlife Management Area, and the sale of an adjacent 1,513 acres for $1.1 million to the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which manages the land for the School Trust and will lease it back to the Aageson family for crop production.

More than 100 Hill County residents have protested the sale of the ranch and dozens of landowners say they won’t allow hunters access to about 100,000 acres of private property as a form of protest.

Darlene Edge, the FWP land agent, said they received the title for the property this week, “free and clear” of all encumbrances other than easements for right of ways.

“There were liens — there’s usually some kind of encumbrance on properties — but they were all paid for and yesterday we got the deed,” she said on Tuesday.

Under the initial agreement with the Board of Regents, the appraised value for the rights to the artifacts on the Aageson property was expected to be about $4 million. The university anticipated paying the Aagesons $2 million and the family would “donate” the rest of the appraised value to the university.

The university system’s payment would put the total price of the deal at $7.8 million.

But shortly before the board met in November, the university received the appraisal by a Seattle firm valuing the archaeological rights at $5.2 million and the paleontological rights at $7.5 million, for a total valuation of $12.7 million. The property, which is 45 miles north of Havre and borders Canada, is in an area known for dinosaur fossils and historically was used by Native Americans, with tepee rings and burial grounds scattered about the acreage.

The decision was made to stick with the $2 million payment by the regents to research, develop and possibly remove artifacts from the site, with the rest of the $10 million appraised value being donated to the university.

However, in late December Rudyard resident Daniel Redding and Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, filed a lawsuit and won a temporary restraining order on the regent’s agreement to pay for the artifacts. They argued that at least $1.1 million of the $2 million in university money already was distributed to the University of Montana and Montana State University for research projects, and the entire $2 million — coming from a special appropriation made in House Bill 2 by the 2011 Montana Legislature — specifically was restricted for research activities at the educational units.

The university system didn’t fight the restraining order, noting that the $1.1 million is earmarked as a match for a federal grant and the remaining $900,000 typically would be used for research projects on campuses identified as a priority or need through the university system. If no complications arise with the federal grant that means only $900,000 would be available for the artifacts purchase.

An “Order to Show Cause,” in which the Commissioner of Higher Education has to explain why a preliminary injunction should not be issued, is set for Jan. 23 in district court in Bozeman.

“They said they want a hearing to discuss appropriate usage of those research dollars,” Christian told the regents on Tuesday. “Candidly, we didn’t disagree with that so much. We never felt this is something we need to rush headlong into, so we didn’t put up a fight.”

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or

Follow Eve on Twitter @IR_Eve Byron

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