As many as 37,000 people in Utah and surrounding areas consider themselves so-called "fundamentalist" Mormons, even though many do not practice polygamy, according to a new census of such groups.
The non-scientific census unveiled Friday gives some tangible numbers for Utah's many polygamist sects.
The Fundamentalist LDS Church has had a decline in members within the past few years, according to Anne Wilde, a fundamentalist, historian and author, who compiled the census. A few years ago, the church's numbers were estimated to be 10,000. The FLDS are now believed to have only 8,000 members.
More than 15,000 people are believed to be "independents," not affiliated with any church. Most do not practice polygamy, Wilde said, but believe in the principle of plural marriage.
"I would say probably fewer than 50 percent live in a plural family," she said.
Wilde persuaded many polygamist sect leaders to reveal their membership numbers. She cautioned that they were only estimates and not scientifically accurate.
"Those are such approximations because these groups don't keep written records," she said.
This is the second census Wilde has taken in recent years. The FLDS Church is the only one that has shown a population decrease.
Wilde said the 2,000-member decline in the FLDS Church reflects families who have either left or been ousted. Advocacy groups said as many as 1,000 of them are children, including the so-called "Lost Boys," who have been kicked out or run away from the polygamist sect over the past five years for not conforming to the culture's rigid customs.
"That's about when Warren Jeffs took over," Wilde noted.
She said she still included the 2,000 ex-FLDS members because they may still consider themselves fundamentalist Mormons.
At the FLDS Church's enclave in Eldorado, Texas, a church is being built near the polygamist sect's first-ever temple.
"They've increased the manufacturing by two or three times; they're adding onto the domiciles," said JD Doyle, a local pilot who often flies over the FLDS Church's ranch. "There's a marked increase in population, judging by the number of pickups in front of the buildings."
In the polygamist border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., some have noticed a trickle of people seemingly leaving town.
"It just seems like fewer people are around, a little bit less traffic," said ex-FLDS member Richard Holm.
On Friday, Doyle provided the Deseret Morning News with new photographs of the YFZ Ranch outside Eldorado. Dozens of women and children were seen working in massive fields.
"The church is about three stories high," he said. "It's got a wheelchair ramp. We were told that it's going to be a church just for them. That way they won't be using the temple for regular church services."
YFZ stands for "Yearn for Zion," after a song penned by FLDS leader Warren Jeffs. He is in jail, facing a September trial in St. George's 5th District Court on charges of rape as an accomplice, a first-degree felony. Jeffs is accused of performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
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