American taxpayers paid $13 million for land just north of Yellowstone National Park in the late 1990s, but it didn't buy any breathing room for the bison trying to leave the park this winter.
That's because although the public gained a lot of land, cows remain too close to the park to let bison wander.
Late in 1998, the Church Universal and Triumphant and the federal government announced they had worked out plans for the church to sell land or conservation easements on 5,000 acres along the park border to the U.S. Forest Service.
At the time, the church also proposed selling the cattle grazing rights on its remaining 7,000 acres to the government. But the church and the Clinton-era Interior Department couldn't agree on the value of those rights, former officials with both entities said Thursday.
And that means cattle are still there and bison aren't allowed.
If the deal had been completed "it would have resolved any bison/cattle conflicts from the park boundary" to Yankee Jim Canyon on the west side of the Yellowstone River, according to Murray Steinman, former vice president of the church.
The appraisal for the grazing rights came in at $2.5 million to $2.7 million, Steinman said.
The government had calculated the value of those grazing rights at about $500,000.
"The price that came in was just absurd," said Don Barry, former assistant secretary of the Interior and now a vice president for The Wilderness Society.
The church insisted on full value. While the price of the grazing rights seemed high, the church would be giving up a perpetual right to run cows, Steinman said.
"Forever is a long time," he said.
So the parties walked away, the grazing rights were never sold and bison aren't allowed over the park line because of fears they'll spread brucellosis to cattle.
Since Monday, the National Park Service has captured 231 bison trying to leave the park. Of those, 184 have been sent to slaughter and the rest will go soon.
Barry said the purchase from the church was successful in that it protected habitat and put into public hands property that could have been subdivided.
But the unrealized goal was to "eliminate excuses the state could have for whacking bison again," he added.
Negotiations were tough. Parties included the New-Age church, three federal agencies with different missions, the state of Montana and environmental groups.
"It was this weird combustible mixture of personalities and interests," Barry recalled.
There was also concern on the part of some environmental groups that if the government paid the appraised price it would have elevated the cost of other land the government buys for conservation.
"It would have set a precedent that would have been hugely expensive all around the West," said Michael Scott, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.