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House committee hears arguments on elk-damage bill

Proposal would require Conservation Department to reimburse people for losses
Monday, February 21, 2011 | 8:42 p.m. CST; updated 9:51 p.m. CST, Monday, February 21, 2011
Two bulls and a cow tagged with a radio collar graze on the terraced hillside of a reclaimed surface mine on Jan. 21 in Bell County, Ky. A bill in the Missouri House would make the Missouri Department of Conservation financially responsible for property damage and accidents caused by elk as a result of the department's elk relocation program.

JEFFERSON CITY — It’s a simple piece of legislation intended to address an unusual problem.

That’s how state Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles, presented a bill to the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee that would hold the Missouri Department of Conservation responsible for damage caused by the wild elk it will bring to the state beginning this spring.

By the end of the committee’s two-hour hearing Monday at the Missouri State Capitol, however, it was clear his colleagues saw some complications.

“I think the bill is simple enough on the surface,” said committee member and state Rep. Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City. “But there are so many things within it.”

Schad, who normally chairs the committee, stepped down to present his bill. More than 30 people showed up for the hearing, and about 12 officials and residents testified. So many people wanted to speak that the committee didn’t have time to hear them all. It asked for written statements instead.

Some who testified argued that residents of the targeted restoration zone, a 346-square-mile area of Shannon, Carter and Reynolds counties, don’t want the elk and shouldn’t be forced to pay for damage they cause. Others said the nature of the land will minimize the danger of elk migration or destruction of farmland. The Conservation Department chose the area because it has a suitable habitat, lots of public land and few farms or roads.

Phillips was worried the bill could set a precedent that would bankrupt the Conservation Department. Making the agency responsible for damage caused by elk could snowball, he said.

“Without a doubt this will open up stuff that will be very hard to deal with,” Phillips said. “Any wildlife in Missouri will be a subject of this bill.”

Bobby Simpson, a member of the Missouri Farm Bureau, was the first to testify in favor of the bill. Simpson owns about 4,000 acres of farmland near Salem and the restoration zone. He said that few people wanted the elk but that the Missouri Conservation Commission ignored those who didn't when it approved the restoration effort.

“Farming is my livelihood. I make my living from it, and my son makes his living from it,” Simpson said. “We’re the ones affected directly by these elk.”

Others who testified for the bill included Leslie Holloway of the Missouri Farm Bureau and Jeff Windett of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association.

Aaron Jeffries, biologist and legislative liaison for the Conservation Department, opposed the bill. David Pace, Missouri chairman for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, also spoke against it. The foundation is helping pay for the restoration.

Jeffries said elk will pose no threat to public safety. Missouri residents, he said, might expect two “fender-benders” per year involving elk.

“The (Missouri Department of Insurance) felt the chances for accidents were extremely rare and therefore couldn’t justify the adjustment of insurance rate for those citizens,” Jeffries said.

Schad was smiling at the end of the meeting. He said he wasn’t surprised by any of the testimony. He waved off concern that the bill would set a precedent.

“I disagree with that completely,” Schad said. “This has nothing to do with existing species in Missouri. And I would hope that future generations of legislators would see to it that this would go no farther.” 

Schad said he was unsure when the committee would vote on the bill.

The Conservation Department plans to bring its first group of elk to Missouri in April. Thirty-eight elk have been trapped in a holding pen in eastern Kentucky’s Bell County, where they are being screened for disease.

The elk will be placed in a holding pen in Peck Ranch Conservation Area once they arrive in the state, and they will be released into the wild shortly thereafter.

Plans call for bringing a total of about 150 elk to Missouri over the next three years.


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Comments

James Fairchild February 22, 2011 | 10:26 a.m.

I guess the Legislature is running out of things to do. Are state legislature members required to be members of the Farm Bureau?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 22, 2011 | 3:45 p.m.

I gots just one word for ya.

Otters

Nice to have them back in the environment; not so nice what they did to fisheries in private ponds/lakes and public rivers.

It cost money, to be sure. I suspect for most farmers it's "kill on sight".

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 22, 2011 | 5:49 p.m.

James: Each of your links illustrates that cows indeed can get out of their pastures and be hit by a car. Similarly, elk can jump OVER intact fences and be hit by a car. I am not a legal eagle on "liability", but your 3rd reference says this:

"If either neighbor has failed to maintain a solid fence that meets legal standards, that person is legally responsible for the results of cattle escaping. That includes causing an auto accident. Of course, drivers may also be liable for the accident -- including the cost of the cow -- if they were driving carelessly."

INO, your link DOES suggest there is some sort of liability if a farmer allows his cows to escape and cause damage.

Now....who's liable when the elk causes damage? Who let it out, anyway?

My conclusion is that your unstated-but-inferred point that "Well, cows get hit, too! What's the difference?" has this answer: Cows are supposed to be confined. When they are not, the owner can be held liable for allowing them to get out. Elk are free-ranging and can jump fences...tall ones, in a single bound.

THAT'S the difference.

And, if the DCon is gonna let them out, then they should be held liable.

(Report Comment)
John Schultz February 22, 2011 | 5:54 p.m.

Michael, what was the three S's you (I think?) mentioned before - shoot, shovel, and something else?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 22, 2011 | 5:59 p.m.

John:

Well, this is gonna be totally misinterpreted by those who did NOT read your question, but:

Shut up.

:^)

(Report Comment)
John Schultz February 22, 2011 | 7:28 p.m.

Well, usually when a shovel and the outdoors is mentioned together, it's a different s-word.

(Report Comment)
Eric Niewoehner February 22, 2011 | 8:45 p.m.

I appreciate the reference issued by Steve Smith. I think it is very disingenuous of the DoC to consider elk damage a minimal concern. They are large animals, and they will multiply. One only has to look at the millions the Feds have spent on highway overpasses that allow elk herds to roam in Wyoming and Montana.

I did a Google search for "elk damage" and it was quite humorous to see listed below it "elk damage management," which references state agencies, university research, and interest groups.

The DoC has a history of errant calculations, but it also has a strong reputation of offering a helping hand to land owners in managing wildlife. I think the least that needs to be done is to set aside a trust that helps land-owners mitigate elk movement and develop management strategies that will minimize damage.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith February 23, 2011 | 7:36 a.m.

It will be interesting to learn how the entire business of reintroducing a large, wild, heavy, free-roaming ruminant herbivore species into a landscape where it has been extinct for 100 years pans out. Since the time of previous elk extinction in Missouri we've accumulated a few federal and state highways and more than a few motor vehicles. Let the fun and games begin!

Meanwhile, Missouri Conservation Department is on track for winning a national stupidity award.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock February 23, 2011 | 9:15 a.m.

The DoC just wants to collect more tag money. Not to mention they will probably create some kind of Elk restoration division. This will allow them to hire more employees using our tax dollars.

(Report Comment)

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