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.