Auditor's report - Conservation department spends 1.23 million to reintroduce 39 elk

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By Tim Sampson
Missouri News Horizon

Jefferson City, Mo. - The State Auditor on Wednesday released a report criticizing the Missouri Department of Conservation for exceeding it’s originally stated budget for reintroducing elk in the southern part of the state. But the conservation department says the auditor was counting money spent on projects that also benefit other species.

According to the Auditor’s report, the conservation department has already spent $1.23 million to reintroduce just 39 elk into a three county area. That’s a stark difference from the Missouri Conservation Commission’s initial estimate that it could reintroduce 150 elk for a cost of $411,185.

This MCD estimate did factor in the cost of building pens, paying hourly employees and capturing elk in Kentucky to be brought to Missouri, but Auditor Tom Schweich says the estimate did not include the cost of salaried employees, ongoing monitoring costs and habitat restoration.

“To help ensure the Commission makes well-informed decisions, the MDC executive staff should provide complete and accurate fiscal information,” Schweich said in the report.

The auditor went on to accuse the MDC executive staff, which prepared the estimate, of violating state open meetings laws by discussing aspects of the elk restoration process in closed meetings that should have been made open to the public.

The conservation department defended it’s estimate though, saying the commissioners who ultimately approved the elk restoration plan were made fully aware of the intended limited scope of the budget.

In it’s estimation, the conservation department says it spent only $363,000 of its proposed $411,185. They say the other items the auditor cited, as cost overruns were never intended to be part of the limited elk reintroduction project.

They argued funds spent on habitat restoration activities should not be included in the project budget since they benefit other species within the wildlife area.

“The Commission understood habitat improvements on private and public land would provide benefits to a wide variety of forest, fish, and wildlife resources in the restoration zone,” the department argued in a written reply to the auditor. “The $31,538 per elk is a misleading calculation (…) The majority of those services would be incurred regardless of elk restoration efforts.

Despite this budgetary disagreement, the auditor’s office gave the conservation department a “good” rating overall on its performance audit of the agency. That is the second highest rating the auditor is authorized to impart.

The reintroduction of elk into Missouri – a state they have been absent from for many years now – has been full of controversy since the plan was first conceived. Fiscal conservatives in state government have questioned the cost of the project at a time when Missouri has been faced with stiff budget cuts year after year. At the same time, farmers and residents in the area where the animals are being reintroduced have vexed about potential damage to crops and auto travel due to the animals.