Whitefish couple creates business out of passion for fossil-finding

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  • NorthWest Montana Fossils owners Aamon Jaeger and Chantel Ibach are pictured outside their Whitefish home on Aug. 14. Jaeger holds a Hypacrosaurus vertebrae and Ibach holds a Hypacrosaurus humerus. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Chantel Ibach sits next to a Hypacrosaurus femur and humerus from the Montana Two Medicine Formation. (Courtesy of NorthWest Montana Fossils)

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    A partial dinosaur skull is mounted and ready for sale at NorthWest Montana Fossils. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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    A fossil is pictured in the preparation process at NorthWest Montana Fossils in Whitefish. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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    NorthWest Montana Fossils owners Aamon Jaeger and Chantel Ibach display a 54-inch long Sauropod femur from the Morrison Formation. It is estimated to be 155 million years old. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Chantel Ibach preps a large Hypacrosaurus tibia from the Cretaceous Montana Two Medicine Formation. (Courtesy of NorthWest Montana Fossils)

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    Aamon Jaeger of NorthWest Montana Fossils holds a Champosaur skull at his Whitefish home. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Aamon Jaeger is pictured on the “Jaeger Ranch” in the Chinle Formation, an Upper Triassic geological formation located in Northeast Arizona. (Courtesy of NorthWest Montana Fossils)

  • NorthWest Montana Fossils owners Aamon Jaeger and Chantel Ibach are pictured outside their Whitefish home on Aug. 14. Jaeger holds a Hypacrosaurus vertebrae and Ibach holds a Hypacrosaurus humerus. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Chantel Ibach sits next to a Hypacrosaurus femur and humerus from the Montana Two Medicine Formation. (Courtesy of NorthWest Montana Fossils)

  • 2

    A partial dinosaur skull is mounted and ready for sale at NorthWest Montana Fossils. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 3

    A fossil is pictured in the preparation process at NorthWest Montana Fossils in Whitefish. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 4

    NorthWest Montana Fossils owners Aamon Jaeger and Chantel Ibach display a 54-inch long Sauropod femur from the Morrison Formation. It is estimated to be 155 million years old. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 5

    Chantel Ibach preps a large Hypacrosaurus tibia from the Cretaceous Montana Two Medicine Formation. (Courtesy of NorthWest Montana Fossils)

  • 6

    Aamon Jaeger of NorthWest Montana Fossils holds a Champosaur skull at his Whitefish home. (Mackenzie Reiss/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Aamon Jaeger is pictured on the “Jaeger Ranch” in the Chinle Formation, an Upper Triassic geological formation located in Northeast Arizona. (Courtesy of NorthWest Montana Fossils)

Aamon Jaeger spends his days digging for treasure.

But it’s not gold or gems he’s after — the Whitefish resident hunts for dinosaur bones.

Jaeger and his girlfriend, Chantel Ibach, own NorthWest Montana Fossils and travel the West uncovering pieces of the past that are millions of years old.

“You can get in there and find something that no one’s seen for 74 million years,” Jaeger said. “You’re the first person to hold these remnants of an actual living, breathing creature that walked this Earth in that exact same spot — that is absolutely incredible to me.”

Jaeger was bitten by the fossil bug seven years ago when he began rockhounding on weekends as an escape from his tattoo shop, Tree of Life Tattoo, in Whitefish. He found a number of coral fossils near the Canadian border and eventually purchased a claim, spurring his search even further.

“I managed to sell a few of them and [thought] this could be a business,” he said.

Fellow local fossil hound Mark Eatman learned of Jaeger’s interest in ancient artifacts and took the young dinosaur enthusiast under his wing , showing him how to dig, prep fossils and work with landowners. He also learned, perhaps most importantly, how to locate dinosaur fossil hotbeds.

“There’s specific formations that hold dinosaurs. The most famous one is called the Hell Creek Formation — that’s where the Tyrannosaurus rex is from and the Triceratops,” Jaeger said.

Certain geographic formations are more likely to contain fossils, including badlands and anticlinal folds — where layers of the earth form an arc shape, like a rug after both sides have been pushed together. Jaeger will also cross-reference maps of known dinosaur formations with geological maps to help narrow down his site selection, but even that is far from a sure thing.

“Just because you’re in a fossil formation does not mean there’s going to be fossils there,” he said. “Sometimes it can be a dead spot, so that’s where a lot of footwork comes in. You have to do a lot of hiking … If you see a bunch of bones spilling out of one spot, you have to trace it back to the source. Sometimes that source can be two feet away, sometimes it’s 40 feet away.”

Jaeger and Ibach prefer to dig in areas that are also composed of limestone. It’s tough going due to the hardness of the rock material, but the quality of preservation they’ve discovered is worth the extra effort. The couple conduct what’s considered a “heavily tooled” operation — in other words, they’re bringing the big guns like jack hammers and pry bars to bore through the limestone.

“It’s 10 times harder to get out of the ground … but the preservation is out of this world,” Jaeger said.

“It really is like a rush when you first find something,” Ibach added. “Oh my gosh, what’s it going to be? We actually enjoy just being out there and spending time together. Our relationship kind of started out there.”

On one of their first dates, Jaeger took Ibach fossil hunting. They found a partial tibia that day and, as they say, the rest is history.

Ibach’s specialty lies in fossil preparation — taking dirt-encrusted dinosaur bones that are most often in pieces, and transforming them into display-ready fossils. She’ll carefully glue the bone fragments together, filling in the gaps with a special epoxy and then color-matching paint to the exact hue of the fossil’s exterior. Once cleaned and completed, the fossils are mounted on metal stands and sold online or in person at fossil shows.

“I’ve seen skeletons sell for as little as a couple thousand dollars and I’ve seen skeletons sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Jaeger said. “It really depends on the makeup of it, how much of it’s there, what kind of species it is.”

But it’s smaller items such as vertebrae, teeth and solo bones, rather than skeletons that keep the lights on.

“These solo bones will sell for anywhere from $100 to $1,000 or $1,500 each. That’s what helps us keep doing what we love to do, essentially,” Jaeger said. “It is a labor of love.”

Fossil hunting can be quite lucrative in rare circumstances and Montana is home to a number of landmark dinosaur finds. The first T. rex skeleton was discovered in the Montana section of the Hell Creek Formation in 1902 by Dr. Barnum Brown. Most recently, the site made headlines when a Montana rancher discovered two dinosaur skeletons frozen in a fighting formation, known as the Dueling Dinosaurs. The pair fetched a $5.5 million bid at auction, but failed to meet the $6 million reserve price, according to an article in the Great Falls Tribune. Last year, another monumental discovery occurred in Hell Creek. Paleontologists located one of the most complete and well-preserved juvenile T. rex skeletons in history, which researchers dubbed a “1 in 100 million” discovery, according to Live Science.

Jaeger and Ibach haven’t uncovered any T. skeletons just yet, but they did find a 220-million-year-old Phytosaur skeleton that was 60 percent complete on their ranch property in Arizona.

“We found him in what is called a die position, which is where the body folds up underneath itself due to rigor mortis, so the head was kind of tucked up underneath all the vertebrae,” Jaeger explained. “We did find a couple of little limbs that all had predation marks on them.”

The couple isn’t in the fossil trade just to earn a living — they’re fulfilling a passion and also hoping to contribute to scientific research.

“In my quarry we have found crocodilian teeth in Montana. In the Two Medicine Formation there has been no identified crocodile whatsoever, so that would be a new species that would rewrite the formation,” Jaeger said.

They’ll have to find more specimens to substantiate their claim, and if that happens, the couple plans to donate those fossils to the scientific community.

“It’s worth more for scientific research than a $25 tooth,” Ibach noted.

But prospective hunters should take note of regulations that govern what they can and cannot taken from the land. Common invertebrate fossils like shellfish and corals can be harvested from public lands for personal use, but collecting these varietals or their vertebrate counterparts for commercial purposes is highly illegal. Digging on private grounds is allowed, but getting approval to do so isn’t always easy.

“Obviously in a very conservative atmosphere such as Eastern Montana, this,” Jaeger said, gesturing to the large gauges in his ears, “doesn’t work too well, so I learned just doing it over the phone was the best bet.”

Once he locates a willing landowner, Jaeger and Ibach will perform an initial dig and show the landowner what, if anything, they happen to find. They’ll offer to buy the bones and often make plans for additional digs. If things continue to go well, they’ll arrange a lease for dig rights on the property. Oftentimes, Jaeger said most ranchers are too busy ranching to be concerned with fossils, while others are more enthusiastic.

“The main goal is to take care of the landowner,” he said. “Industrial farming nowadays, the profit margin is razor thin, so it can help compensate landowners to maintain their way of life.”

The couple’s hunt for fossils has led them to people they wouldn’t have otherwise met and places they wouldn’t have ordinarily traveled to. It’s all part of their search for answers from another era, one bone at a time.

Reporter Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at (406) 758-4433 or mreiss@dailyinterlake.com.

BREAKOUT:

About NorthWest Montana Fossils:

Follow NorthWest Montana Fossils on Facebook by searching “NorthWest Montana Fossils” or call (406) 270-7852. Stop by their table at the Whitefish Farmers Market on Tuesday evenings from 5 to 7 p.m. through Sept. 24 at Depot Park in Whitefish. A selection of fossils harvested by Aamon and Chantel can also be purchased from www.fossilera.com.

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