Missouri Department of Conservation knows the routine: If at first you don't succeed. . .
The Missouri Department of Conservation doesn't like "no" for an answer.
Ten years ago, when the department last floated the idea of introducing elk to Missouri, the public decided to take a pass.
Since then, there has been relative silence in the public about the issue.
I say "relative silence" because years of writing opinion has taught me a mastery of the weasel's way with words. It's an attribute I share with the folks behind MDC's renewed effort to introduce elk into the state.
Weasel-like, too, is my use of the word "public" a couple paragraphs ago, because there has been-at something less than a public level-a conversation about introducing elk between agents of the MDC and elk enthusiast groups. There has also been tax-payer money dancing along the fine line between education and promotion of elk introduction—prior to any meaningful input from the public.
Thus, my criticism of MDC on this issue is in the process. If the agency can guarantee disease-free elk that stay in an area designated for elk management, I'd reckon that the people in the elk-release counties ought to have the most considered input.
But, such promises bring to mind MDC's introduction of otters in the 80s. A few years after that introduction, editors at farm magazines got their share of calls from upset pond owners. They complained that otters had decimated their fish stocks. In fact, just this spring, MDC published an article explaining the otter situation.
"In our vision for otters living in Missouri, we sure didn't see these ponds as providing good habitat for otters, nor did we see the impending train wreck that otter depredation of the fish in these ponds would cause," it states. Read it all at: http://mdc.mo.gov/conmag/2007/06/missouri-river-otter-saga.
It's true that MDC has responded by lifting restrictions on trapping otter, which has reduced pressure on ponds, but past performance shows that species might adapt differently than MDC expects.
The otter, by the way, is a member of the weasel family.
Meanwhile, if MDC can deliver disease-free elk that stay where they are meant to, why didn't MDC chief Bob Ziehmer bother to mention elk as he briefed Missouri Farm Bureau on conservation issues this summer? Could it have slipped his mind?
Ziehmer's omission had soon-to-retire Missouri Farm Bureau president Charlie Kruse miffed. Kruse distributed an open letter with a few pointed questions:
Why did we have to read about [the proposed elk introduction] in the paper? When the head of the Conservation Department, Bob Ziehmer, addressed the farmers and ranchers of Farm Bureau's Statewide Resolutions Committee in June, he didn't even mention [elk].
Ziehmer knew how important this issue is to farmers and other landowners; he knew Missouri Farm Bureau has policy against the reintroduction of elk on Missouri lands; and he knew about the Conservation Department's reintroduction plans. Yet while addressing the very people with whom he and his colleagues professed a desire to have a close working relationship, he did not say a word about elk reintroduction-we had to find out about one month later in the newspaper.
Today's Farmer readers are astute enough to know that both Kruse and Ziehmer are refined in the political barn dance that is Jefferson City. We know that the occasional stiff arm during the do-si-do is to be expected. But Kruse has a point: If MDC is keen to get along with landowners, why not mention the elk project to the Farm Bureau's resolutions committee?
MDC's period for open comment closed about the time we mailed this magazine, and the Conservation Commission is scheduled to make a decision about introduction of elk on Oct. 15.
Let the commission weigh the benefit and liability of elk, with special attention to the landowners and public in the area that elk will first impact. And, let them carefully consider the ramifications of elk that might spread away from the intended habitat-with special consideration for landowners who would be affected, including clear and liberal allowance for dispatching errant elk.
Meanwhile, I think the rest of us should weigh carefully the MDC's fidelity to the tax payer and the agency's forthrightness. We should especially consider a referendum on the perpetual 1/8 of one-percent general sales tax that funds the department. At the very least, that referendum should provide a sunset date for the tax. Sunsetting sales taxes is just good policy. So is reduced funding for government agencies that make sport of transparency.