Audit: Missouri elk restoration cost three times the estimate

Thursday, December 29, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri's elk restoration program has cost about three times more than initially estimated, to a cost of about $30,000 per animal, the state auditor's office said in a review released Wednesday.

Republican Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich said in the study that the Department of Conservation spent about $1.2 million for expenses such as employee salaries, equipment and habitat improvement. The department had budgeted about $411,000 for operational costs to introduce up to 150 animals. In all, the review calculated that the department spent about $30,000 on each of the roughly three dozen elk introduced so far.

Conservation officials said the audit's cost calculation is misleading because it includes one-time costs such as building pens for the elk. In addition, the department said the audit counted expenses for habitat improvements that benefit all wildlife, road maintenance and other project costs that likely would have been incurred regardless of any elk restoration.

Tim Ripperger, the deputy director of the Department of Conservation, said the agency spent about $363,000 for operational expenses such as trapping, relocating and testing the elk. The four-member Conservation Commission approved the elk restoration plan last year, and Ripperger said commissioners knew at that time some expenses were not included in the cost estimate.

Ripperger said the budgeting process was not unusual and has been used for other Department of Conservation projects.

The department has said restoring elk could be an economic boost for Missouri through tourism and hunting. A group of 34 elk was released in June to a 346-square-mile elk restoration zone in parts of Shannon, Carter and Reynolds counties in southern Missouri. The animals were fitted with GPS radio collars to help track their movement, health and preferred types of vegetation. Conservation officials said there now are 36 animals, including five calves. The elk were brought to Missouri from Kentucky.

Eventually up to 150 elk could be released over the next several years. Wild elk had not been present in Missouri in more than 150 years. The department plans to keep elk to the restoration zone through trapping, relocation and euthanasia.

Opponents of the elk restoration have raised concerns about the potential for crop damage, spreading disease to livestock and accidents with vehicles.

The state audit rated the overall performance of the Department of Conservation as "good."

Besides the budget, auditors also said they believed some discussions about elk restoration wrongly were held during closed meetings. The audit said commissioners and executive staff discussed elk restoration during closed sessions at the Conservation Commission's meetings last year in January, April and May.

Missouri's open meetings law, called the Sunshine Law, generally requires public entities to meet in sessions open to the public. However, closed meetings are allowed for certain topics, such as litigation and personnel issues.

The Department of Conservation said discussions during the closed sessions related to potential legal actions and were allowed. The agency said in a written response included with the audit's findings that its general counsel reviews every topic planned for discussion during a closed meeting to ensure it is permitted under the Sunshine Law and that commissioners stick to those issues.

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