Are taxpayers liable for damages caused by a species reintroduced by the state?
The question is at the heart of state legislation now being considered in response to the Missouri Department of Conservation's plan to restore elk to an area of southeastern Missouri.
Conservation commissioners last fall approved a plan to bring wild elk to a 346-square mile protected zone in parts of Shannon, Carter and Reynolds counties.
The agency contends elk reintroduction, scheduled to start in the spring, could boost tourism and hunting.
Critics fear elk will damage crops, spread disease to livestock and cause accidents with vehicles.
Those concerns prompted legislation by state Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles. Under his proposal, the Conservation agency would own elk in Missouri and be liable for damages, including destroyed crops, sickened livestock and wrecked vehicles.
The potential consequences were not overlooked during discussion and planning of elk restoration.
On its website, the Conservation agency lists these considerations:
• Before making its decision, the agency gathered citizen input at public forums and by e-mail, mail and telephone. More than 70 percent of comments supported the plan.
• The limited restoration zone was selected because it has extensive public lands, minimal agriculture and low road density.
• All reintroduced elk will be fitted with microchips and radio collars to allow tracking.
• The plan includes provisions for protecting Missouri wildlife and livestock and dealing with elk that wander onto private land.
Specifics of those provisions are not listed.
Although controversy about the restoration plan may be specific to a relatively small area of Missouri, the implications of Schad's proposal are statewide.
We ask our readers to consider the underlying question: Should taxpayers statewide ultimately be responsible to pay these damages?