JEFFERSON CITY — A state House committee's near-unanimous approval of Rep. Rodney Schad's wild elk bill hardly shocked him.
The bill, which would hold the Missouri Department of Conservation financially liable for any damage caused by wild elk, was approved 13-1 Monday by the House Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee.
Schad, R-Versailles, is confident that testimony during a hearing last week persuaded fellow committee members to support his bill. While the legislation will not deter the Conservation Department’s three-year plan to reintroduce 150 elk in southeast Missouri, Schad said it is an important step for public safety.
“When you look at the history of this and some of the activity in Arkansas and Kentucky, it makes me realize that we need to move on this,” Schad said, citing vehicle crashes involving elk in those states.
Rep. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee's Summit, said testimony about agricultural and vehicle damage caused by elk in Arkansas convinced him the bill is a good idea. Rep. Gary Fuhr, R-St. Louis, said he favors the bill because the reintroduction of elk needs to be done in the safest manner possible, and that includes making the Conservation Department pay for any damage the elk cause.
Cierpiot said he has spoken to other lawmakers about adding a "sunsetting" provision to the bill that would take it off the books in four years if there are no issues with elk.
Rep. Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City, was the lone dissenter on the committee. He was prepared to vote against the bill as soon as he read it. He said it represents a dangerous precedent that could make the Conservation Department liable for damage caused by any wild animals. Phillips said he would rather see no elk at all than a bill like this.
“My whole point to the committee was: Why try to do something now to derail it or cause a burden on the Conservation Commission when there were many opportunities in the beginning to fight this thing?” Phillips said.
Despite the near-unanimous decision, Aaron Jeffries, a biologist and liaison to the legislature for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said the process encouraged him because it raised questions about precedent and other issues with the bill. He noted that the bill has a way to go before it makes it to the floor of the full House.
Before that happens, Jeffries said, he wants to inform legislators about steps taken to ensure the safety of the public and the elk. Those steps include releasing the elk in a region where few people farm and where the only major road is U.S. 60.
“This was just one step in a process with many steps to go to get to the final vote,” Jeffries said.
The House Rules Committee now controls the bill; it will decide whether it can be presented on the House floor. Schad would not speculate on the chances of his bill passing until he talks to House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville. Phillips said the bill’s success in the Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee is no indication how it will fare in the future.
“I would really be surprised if it has that kind of support beyond committee, but I was the only one that voted against it, and that shocks me,” Phillips said. “So I have no inkling of a prediction as to what could happen to it now.”