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Know the West

Church lands will help bail out bison


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

If someone tells you they have a simple solution to the bitter controversy over Yellowstone National Park's wandering bison, turn around and walk away.

The Church Universal and Triumphant's offer concerning its Royal Teton Ranch illustrates the complexity of the problem. What could have been a fairly straightforward and popular land transaction that would open up land outside the park for the bison, eventually involved four state agencies, three federal agencies, the governor of Montana, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, four congressional committees, two senators and a congressman.

"All of these entities could have killed the deal," church vice president and lands manager Murray Steinman said.

Here's how the deal began: In 1997, the Forest Service, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the church announced that the church would sell or place conservation easements upon 7,850 acres of the best winter range and migration corridors on the ranch. The federal government would pay the church $13 million and trade it roughly 1,000 acres in small parcels.

The public responded with a great deal of warmth, for few could forget the images of slaughtered bison. The 12,000-acre ranch sprawls along Yellowstone National Park's northern border and is home to thousands of elk, deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, moose, black bears, grizzly bears, bald eagles, migratory birds and the occasional wolf. Though it had been subdivided on paper for years into 20-acre parcels, no land had been sold.

The church had money troubles - officials had been open about that - and now, developers were making offers. The land isn't richly productive in agricultural terms; the climate is too dry and the soil too rocky. But it is critical for many species. Its development potential is also huge: Views stretch forever, the blue-ribbon Yellowstone River is right there and a paved highway is three minutes away.

The Clinton administration got on board right away, earmarking $13 million from 1998 Land and Water Conservation Fund allocations and making it the top land-acquisition priority in the nation. Politicians of both parties supported the deal, and so did the agencies.

After all, the land had slipped from the public grasp once before, in 1980. The Forest Service had worked out a deal then with the previous owner, publisher Malcolm Forbes. But with the election of Ronald Reagan that year, and his appointment of James Watt to run the Interior Department, the deal fizzled and the church bought the property the next year.

So CUT's 1997 offer looked like an easy deal to accomplish, particularly since hundreds of bison had been shot on church property in past winters. Steinman, who'd become land manager for the church, said he was tired of seeing dead bison on the ranch and tired of the bad publicity the carcasses brought the church.

Officials at the Interior Department tried to tie release of the funds to the installation of a "bison easement" that would protect the animals on former church land and land it kept. That's when Gov. Marc Racicot of Montana called a halt. What he wanted in return was some cooperation from federal agencies, especially the National Park Service in its management of Yellowstone. That agency had been promising a cooperative bison plan since 1990.

Racicot thought officials were dragging their feet, trying to burden Montana with the park's surplus of possibly diseased bison. So the governor contacted Sen Conrad Burns and Rep. Rick Hill, both Montana Republicans, and asked for help. They responded by persuading committee chairmen in Washington to put conditions of their own on release of the purchase money: It could be spent only when an environmental impact statement outlining a new bison plan was complete and the plan implemented.

Meanwhile, at least one group - the Fund for Animals - was vowing to sue to protect bison, and the wings were filled with other potential litigants.

That's where things stood when Steinman took over negotiations last May. The church needed money and couldn't afford to wait forever for it. Yet entrenched state and federal officials stood at loggerheads, trying to wrestle an advantage over each other, while the land, and the animals that need it, waited in limbo.

"Not only did this deal have some near-death experiences; at times it actually died," Steinman said.

He credits Ron Marcoux of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation with keeping negotiations alive for 15 months. Marcoux would "raise the deal from the dead, breathe life into it and get it to walk and talk again," Steinman said.

In 1999, something clicked. Nobody wanted to be branded as the one who killed this popular plan, and all sides agreed to back off.

Interior would drop its demands for an easement protecting bison on the land, and Racicot would drop his demand for completion of an environmental impact statement before the end of 1999. Bison details could be argued on a later day. Make the land publicly owned, all parties agreed, and figure out later how to manage the critters on it.

This year, on Feb. 11, the deal was signed. Now, 2,300 acres has already changed hands; another 3,200 acres will be sold by the end of April and conservation easements on another 1,800 acres will be in place, if all goes as planned.

Meanwhile, the bison are mostly staying away from Yellowstone's northern border during this relatively mild winter.

But when they do come out - and they will, at some point - they'll find sagebrush and native grasses - not condos and swimming pools.