One of the biggest wildlife conflicts out west is how to handle wildlife–whether its wolves or bison–on ranchland. One arm of the government protects wildlife and another slaughters it for interfering with livestock. Only in this weird situation could you get the federal government paying paying $3.3 million to let Yellowstone bison graze on church retreat land when the whole ranch has an estimated market value of $3.9 million.
Earlier this week Ken Cole at Ralph Maugham’s Wildlife News calculated the rate the federal government is paying to exorbitant fees graze bison on a church’s retreat out just outside Yellowstone. The Church Universal and Triumphant gets $313 per AUM (Animal Unit per Month), 232 times more than the fed’s own grazing rate of $1.35 AUM.
So I decided to look at the tax assessments on the property to see what it would be worth just to buy it. Looking through the Montana property tax assessments for the Royal Teton Ranch, I don’t find a way that the 7,000 acres could be worth much more than $3.9 million on the market. Now, there could be hidden gems in the land–it is supposedly improved with nuclear bunkers–but even if it’s worth twice that amount, why not buy?
This 30-year, $3 million dollar deal was inked in 2008, but it’s just getting underway. Few people who like bison like this deal. “This deal is just a complete waste of energy and funds,” says Peter Bogusko, volunteer coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign.Bogusko. Right now 67 wild bison have been corralled in Yellowstone and park officials want to catch 80, says Bogusko. They’ll test them for brucellosis, then move 25 clean buffalo to the church’s Royal Teton Retreat, where they can stay till April. Bogusko doesn’t think they’ll slaughter any that test positive because they don’t want the deaths attributed to the deal. Park wildlife officials will also tag, radio collar and insert “vaginal transmitters” in pregnant cows to figure out where they give birth.
Bison supporters don’t like the deal, first off, the church first got $13 million from the feds and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in 1998 to sell 5,263 acres and to let wildlife roam on some 1,500 other acres. Then they said they needed $3 million more to allow bison and give up their cattle grazing rights. Even though everyone touted the first deal as a victory for bison.
The Church Universal and Triumphant was founded in California in 1958 and in 1981 bought 12,000 acres in Montana to wait out the apocalypse. Leader Elizabeth Claire Prophet expected the Russians to nuke us on March 15, 1990. Bradley C. Whitsel studied the church and his book describes the church as “an armed, apocalyptic, New Age religious sect prepared for survival and self-defense,” one reviewer notes. By 1989 they were in trouble for building underground bunkers, which attracted 2,000 to 3,000 fearful followers. As you can imagine, they didn’t get any more popular when the world didn’t end in 1990. They got into trouble for hoarding weapons and lost members. Prophet got Alzheimer’s and died in 2009. Critics say the church’s “treasurer Sydney Bennett admitted that without operating funds from the sale of thousands of acres of its Royal Teton Ranch, CUT would have been forced to ‘close its doors.'”
So why didn’t the federal government just buy them out?
I tried to find out how much the land would simply cost to buy. I find about 30-50 parcels owned by the church in Montana property records. It’s hard to gauge what the property is really worth. There are a ton of tracts like this one: 20 acres valued at $1,100 ($55 an acre) and then others like this 27 acres valued at $567,000 ($21,000 an acre). They have a ton of cabins, trailers and tiny plots. Parcel 28 is a 570-foot 2 BR cabin built in 1984 and valued at $56,000.
There are also big chunks of land, hundreds of acres, with widely varying values. And the Byzantine system of American property taxes doesn’t help. The county sometimes lists four values for the same property, sometimes just one. You can do some translation through the ones that have all the numbers, like 179 acres of tillable farmland with an assessed value of $220,000 and a market value of nearly $1 million ($5,586 an acre); 640 acres with an assessed valuation of $87,573, but a “2010 FULL REAPPRAISAL VALUE” of $306,000 ($478 an acre). So the market value is roughly three to five times the “assessed” value. Then you’ve got some really cheap land, like 458 acres with an assessed value of $12,297.00 (so, a real value of, what, maybe $60,000?) ($131 an acre).
Okay, so let’s say they have 7,000 acres left. And let’s take the top price I’ve found for the big plots–$5,586 an acre. The cost of just buying the land would be $3.9 million. That’s probably high because we know some of the land is worth a lot less. But we also know some holdings–like commercial land or mobile homes–would be worth more, even though they’re useless to bison. But $3.9 million is still just a bit more than the price that the federal government paid ($3.3 million) to let bison graze on the land for just 30 years–with a ton of restrictions. It’s hard to find comparables that don’t have a giant house on them, but $5,000 to $10,000 seems reasonable. Even at $10,000 an acre or $8 million, why not save the taxpayers a lot of money and buy?
I also found an odd note from the GAO report: the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has the “a long-term right of first refusal…to purchase remaining RTR lands.” (I put in a call to the hunting/conservation group, but haven’t heard back yet.)
Where to Go See Buffalo