COLUMBIA — While a state audit suggests the Missouri Department of Conservation's elk restoration project has exceeded its approved budget, the department says the audit does not accurately reflect the project's spending.
According to the report released Friday by State Auditor Tom Schweich, the Conservation Department has spent $3.38 million to reintroduce 129 elk in Missouri. Federal grants and private donations accounted for $1.42 million of the money spent.
Reintroducing elk to Missouri is both experiment and science. Elk were outfitted with tracking collars that let Conservation Department and MU researchers track their movements. Researchers regularly collect and analyze elk dung to see what the animals are eating and how well they're adapting to their habitat. (This story is available to Missourian digital members.)
The department's initial budget was only $411,000 for the cost of releasing 150 elk. In June 2011, the state auditor released a similar report that said $1.23 million had already been spent.
The Conservation Department said the auditor's report incorrectly included routine habitat improvements as part of the conservation process — improvements that would have been necessary without the elk project.
"We did a lot of work in that zone that we would have done otherwise," said Tim Ripperger, deputy director for the Conservation Department.
A total of $363,033 was spent to trap, relocate and monitor the elk in 2011, the project's first year, according to the Conservation Department. The department indicated that its original $411,000 budget was for the rest of that year. So the department actually underspent on the project in 2011, Ripperger said.
In 2012, the Conservation Department spent more than $19 million on wildlife and nearly $11 million on resource science.
The department reintroduced elk to Missouri in 2011 after 150 years without the species, according to the department's 2011-12 annual report. In May 2011, 34 elk from Kentucky were brought to Peck Ranch in southeast Missouri. In 2012, 35 more elk and a newborn were also brought to the ranch. Since then, some have been relocated to a release site, according to the annual report.
The auditor's report also said the Conservation Department gave employees pay raises that were not provided to other state employees. While most state employees received a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment, Conservation Department employees have three other 2 percent increases scheduled through 2014.
The deputy director and four division chiefs have all received raises, as well, totaling $54,036, according to the report. The department director received pay increases totaling $20,004, an almost 17 percent increase. According to the audit, only one other department head received a pay increase during the same period and of just 2 percent.
In its response, the Conservation Department said solely looking at salary to make comparisons is misleading. The department's total service cost in 2012 was still $7.1 million lower than it was in 2009.
Ripperger also said department employees do not receive benefits from the Missouri Consolidated Health Care Plan, which would cost citizens an estimated $9 million yearly. Instead, the department has its own health care plan, which saves citizens money.
Overall, the auditor still gave the Department of Conservation a "good rating" and considered it a well-managed agency, Ripperger said.
"We're pleased we were given a good rating and that they found no waste, abuse or fraud," he said.
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