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Elk restoration plan comes under fire from state auditor

State auditor Tom Schweich has faulted the budgeting of a Mo. Dept. of Conservation project to restore elk in the state.
(Missouri Dept. of Conservation)
State auditor Tom Schweich has faulted the budgeting of a Mo. Dept. of Conservation project to restore elk in the state.

A controversial Missouri Department of Conservation plan to reintroduce elk into southeastern Missouri is under fire from Republican state auditor Tom Schweich.

In a report released today, Schweich faults the department for spending close to three times the projected amount to reintroduce fewer than expected elk. The report says the MDC projected it would cost about $411,000 to reintroduce 150 elk, but the state ended up spending $1.23 million for just 39 elk, of which only 36 have survived.

Schweich says the budget the MDC proposed to the Missouri Conservation Commission - the department's policy makers - included the costs of capturing the elk in Kentucky, building holding pens, and for hourly employees. But the audit faults the MDC for not including salaried employees or the long-term cost of monitoring the elk, as well as for not estimating the cost of habitat improvements that would be needed.

The audit report also says the Commission held several closed meetings about the elk project, in the violation of the Sunshine Act.

But the deputy state auditor for Missouri, Harry Otto, says overall, the MDC is well-managed.

“This is a multi, multi-million dollar operation on an annual basis, and at the end of the day, we said the overall performance of this entity was “good,” in spite of some of the things that we found," Otto said. "We very rarely find one that’s what we consider perfect.”

MDC deputy director Tim Ripperger says the department actually spent less than the $411,000 it budgeted for the project in 2011.

“The difference in the funds the auditor’s office is talking about and what we’re showing is in staff time, habitat management and improvement, infrastructure such as some road improvement, that sort of thing,” Ripperger said.

Ripperger says most of the excess costs identified by the audit would have been incurred even without the elk reintroduction project. He says the project is ongoing and that the MDC still plans to meet its target of reintroducing 150 elk to the state over the next couple of years.

In the audit report, the MDC also rejected Schweich's contention that it had violated open meetings laws, saying all the closed sessions were related to potential legal matters.

In addition, the audit report faulted the MDC for:

  • Failing to develop and update management plans for conservation areas. Schweich's office found that 470 of the state's 807 conservation areas did not have an area plan as of June 2011. The Department says it's making progress to ensure that all of its plans are up to date;
  • Loose internal controls over procurement cards, including several documented instances when employees split the cost of an item into several transactions to stay within the limit for the card, and several cases where the user failed to solicit bids. The department says it's taking steps to ensure its employees know the rules about procurement cards.
Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.