Stocking elk proves to be an expensive undertaking
If West Virginia wildlife officials ever decide to stock elk in the state's southwestern counties, they'd be well advised to learn from their counterparts in Missouri.
Folks in the Show Me State are upset because a stocking project that was supposed to cost $411,185 is apparently costing much more than that.
The Missouri State Auditor says the agency has spent $1.23 million to stock just 39 of the 150 elk called for in the project. Missouri Department of Conservation officials say the auditor counted expenses that weren't part of the project.
When government officials start going back and forth like that, the cold hard truth is tough to pin down.
According to an account by the non-profit Missouri News Horizon media service, state Auditor Tom Schweich criticized wildlife officials for failing to factor employee's salaries, habitat restoration and ongoing monitoring costs into their estimates.
Department officials contend they've spent just $363,000 of their projected budget for the project. They argue that the salaries and habitat improvements cited by the auditor benefited all wildlife, not just elk, and therefore should not be included in the project cost.
As an outsider with no particular ax to grind, it appears that the auditor might be going a bit hard on the agency. It wouldn't be the first time that a state auditor came down hard on a resource agency. West Virginia Division of Natural Resources officials regularly get raked over the coals for perceived shortcomings in deer-management efforts.
I must add, however, that Missouri Department of Conservation officials obviously haven't stayed within the elk project's budget. Using the agency's own figures, $363,000 has been spent to stock 39 animals. Good luck stocking 111 more with the remaining $48,185 earmarked for the project.
Part of the Missouri controversy springs from the way the Department of Conservation gets its money. In addition to revenue from hunting- and fishing-license sales and from federal excise taxes paid on hunting and fishing equipment, the Missouri agency gets one eighth of one percent of the state's annual sales tax collections.
Sales tax revenue accounts for 58 percent of the agency's annual income. Taxpayers feel they have a right to complain when the agency overspends, and they do.
West Virginia's wildlife officials enjoy a good deal more independence because their agency derives almost all of its funding from license sales and federal excise-tax rebates. Because the DNR receives only a tiny fraction of its money from the state's general fund, agency administrators tend to listen more closely to license-buying hunters and anglers than they do to taxpayers as a whole.
That said, if Mountain State wildlife officials ever overspent on an elk-stocking project as badly as Missouri officials appear to have overspent on theirs, they'd be in every bit as much hot water as their Show Me State counterparts.
West Virginians don't have much money. They must live within their means, and for the most part they do. They have a hard time understanding when government officials badly underestimate the cost of a project, especially an expensive, high profile one like an elk-stocking initiative.
To my knowledge, West Virginia officials at this time have absolutely no plans to stock elk within the state.
Circumstances change. Public or political pressure might someday persuade DNR officials to purchase elk from some other state and release them into the southwestern coalfields. If or when that happens, I'm sure the good folks at the Missouri Department of Conservation would be happy to render the following advice:
Stick to the budget. Even if the public wants what you're providing, they'll still count the nickels.