Rancher’s T-rex discovery makes a move

Amanda Radke
Forum News Service

It was Labor Day in 1988 when Tom and Kathy Wankel, ranchers from Angela, Mont., took their kids on a camping trip to Fork Peck, a federal reservoir located on the Missouri River.

When the fish weren’t biting, Tom and Kathy decided to do a little hiking and rock hunting, and that’s why Kathy saw it — a brown and shiny object that looked like the side of a butter knife.

“Mom knew there were dinosaurs in the area, and when she saw the bone, she could tell it looked different than the other rocks,” said Whitney (Wankel) Klasna, who was just a 1-year-old when her mom found the bone.

Digging with a pocketknife, the couple extracted a bone or two out of the hard, dry dirt. Later, they would take their finds to the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Mont.

“Mom and Dad opened the tailgate of the station wagon and showed the lead paleontologist at the museum the bones,” said Klasna. “He immediately knew what it was.”

It was the arm of a T-rex. And in 1989 and 1990, a crew of experts would go on to dig 60 tons of cap rock to uncover the skeleton of the giant dinosaur, thanks to the Wankel’s discovery on the family camping trip.

“Over all these years, this is still is one of the largest and most complete skeletons of the T-rex ever found,” said Jack Horner, Museum of the Rockies curator of paleontology, in a video capturing the discovery.

On June 8, the Wankel T-rex found a new home at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

“The T-rex is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, which means the American people own it since it was found on federal land,” said Klasna.

The Smithsonian then spent five years completely overhauling and redoing the museum’s fossil exhibit hall, and the June celebration officially revealed the curators’ and paleontologists’ work, which included, of course, the Wankel T-rex.

“Our entire family and 150 of our closest friends and relatives got to be part of the exhibit celebration, which included a private dinner and tour of the Smithsonian where lead scientists and paleontologists were there to answer our questions,” said Klasna. “It was an incredible event to be part of, and although we were sad to see the T-rex leave Montana, knowing that 5-6 million people visit the museum each year, it’s exciting to share this dinosaur and its story with so many people from around the world.”

“It’s the centerpiece,” said Kirk Johnson, of the National Museum of Natural History. “Visitors to the new hall will go on a voyage like no other — a journey that begins in the past and ends in the future,”

The new 31,000-square foot exhibit includes the T-rex and 700 other fossils that tell the story of life’s 3.7 billion-year history on Earth. The project cost $110 million to complete, and it all started with a ranch mom’s discovery of one single bone.

“Growing up, we lived in such a remote place in Montana that we didn’t get to participate in 4-H,” said Klasna. “But thanks to this T-rex, we learned how to speak in front of people by visiting classrooms with our mom. Going to Washington, D.C., to be part of the Smithsonian event is an unforgettable moment for our family, and it definitely opened up opportunities for us to talk about ranch life and the day my mom found a bone while out enjoying nature with her family.”

Pictured in front of the exhibit featuring T-rex discovered by the Wankel family during a gala event, from left: Dylan Klasna, Whitney (Wankel) Klasna, Melanie Wankel, Lee Wankel, Logan Wankel, Tom Wankel, Kathy Wankel, Rock Wankel, Finn Wilkens, Christy (Wankel) Wilkens, Jennifer (Wankel) Carlson, Caitlin Carlson.