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Montana Sect's Downfall Is a Boon for Conservationists

New York Times/March 24, 1998
By Jim Robbins

CORWIN SPRINGS, Mont. -- A few years ago, a controversial religious sect called the Church Universal and Triumphant had grand plans for a self-sufficient New Age community that could survive what its leader claimed was a coming nuclear holocaust.

Now, however, a different kind of cloud has moved over the future of the New Age church. The leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, has a degenerative

neurological disease. Members have left, revenue has plummeted, and hundreds of staff members have been laid off. Plans for a religious campus, officials say, are no longer viable.

But the church's problems may benefit the herds of bison and other wildlife that move out of Yellowstone National Park each winter to range along the Yellowstone River.

The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are expected to buy 7,800 acres of the church's sprawling 12,000-acre Royal Teton Ranch and permanently set aside the land. The two agencies will use some of the $13 million they are to receive as part of the nearly $700 million set aside by the administration and Congress for the purchase of wildlife habitat.

"This is the most important wildlife corridor in the Lower 48," said Michael Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental group in Bozeman, Mont. "Life doesn't give too many second chances. This is one of them."

In the winter the ranch, where the grasses are swept free of snow by the wind, teems with antelope and elk and other wildlife that have come out of the park to escape a much fiercer winter.

Such winter range has become invaluable. When the 2.2-million-acre park was set aside in 1872, there was plenty of room beyond its boundaries for wildlife to spend winters. But in recent years, subdivisions have boomed and new homes and trailers have blossomed in the river valleys surrounding the park.

The land is especially important as winter range for the park's bison. In recent years, bison that left the park for lower elevations, including the Royal Teton Ranch, were shot because state agricultural officials and ranchers in Montana feared they could transmit brucellosis, a disease that some bison carry, to cattle.

During last year's record snowfall, park officials shot or slaughtered 725 bison from a herd of about 3,000 headed to the church's ranch alone. An additional 358 were shot near West Yellowstone by state livestock officials.

Few bison have left the park this year because of unusually mild weather; only 11 have been killed.

But Montana livestock officials say transferring the ranch to public ownership will not guarantee a refuge for bison. "As long as the area is next to an operating ranch, it's doubtful" that bison will be allowed to remain there, said Laurence Peterson, of the Montana Department of Livestock. "We will still have concerns about disease control."

The state is negotiating with the church to buy a tract of the ranch at a northern border of Yellowstone, to build a bison quarantine facility.

Some environmentalists have questioned the federal deal, because a piece of the ranch along the river corridor has been left out of the plan.

"It's a significant part of the migration route," said Richard Parks, of the Bear Creek Council, a local environmental group. "And that strip of land would be highly desirable to a developer." But he said that was not a reason to refuse the deal.

The ranch has been a controversial piece of ground for the last 15 years. The Forest Service was negotiating to buy the land in 1981, when Malcolm Forbes, the owner, sold it to the church, which moved its operation here from Southern California. In 1989, church members came to Montana from around the world and frantically burrowed into the earth, building bomb shelters to prepare for a first-strike nuclear missile attack by the Soviet Union that was predicted by Ms. Prophet.

The attack never came, and the church began a decline from which it never recovered. The church plans to use much of the money from the sale to pay off debts.

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