Animal Kingdom

A proposal before the Missouri Legislature seems tailored to make the Department of Conservation, already a fiefdom unto itself, even less answerable to citizens

Some state lawmakers say it's a pre-emptive strike against animal-rights groups.

No, say others, it's a pre-emptive strike against Missouri voters.
If nothing else, the explanation for a recent proposal in the state Legislature is at least a pre-emptive strike against easy comprehension. The measure asks for a vote of the lawmakers on a measure asking for a vote of the voters on a constitutional amendment requiring any ballot initiative approved by voters to be approved by at least two-thirds of those voters if, and only if, it concerns the Department of Conservation (DOC), itself funded as a result of a ballot measure approved by voters.

There's no easy way to explain this. First, House Joint Resolution No. 26 asks the Legislature to approve placing a measure on the ballot. Second, that ballot measure would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment. Third, that constitutional amendment would require that any voter-approved ballot initiative dealing with the DOC be approved by a two-thirds majority of voters rather than the traditional simple majority.

In other words, if a citizens' group collected enough signatures to place the following language on the ballot -- "All state legislators must disclose their IQs" -- a simple majority would make the language a law. But if a citizens' group collected enough signatures to put this on the ballot -- "All Department of Conservation employees must take part in water-mammal sensitivity training" -- it would require a two-thirds majority instead.

The proposal is sponsored by House Majority Leader Wayne Crump (D-Potosi), whose recent claim to fame is that he managed to get the concealed-weapons measure on the April ballot last session, and Rep. Charles "Chuck" Purgason (R-West Plains), whose claim to fame includes membership in the Missouri Bowhunters Association, the National Wild Turkey Association, Ducks Unlimited and the Missouri Cattlemen's Association. A total of 55 other representatives, including House Speaker Steve Gaw (D-Moberly) co-signed the bill.

The reasoning behind the proposal, Purgason explains, is to keep the DOC free of emotion-driven voter referendums. He points to two measures passed last November in Colorado and California banning the use of steel leg traps and certain poisons by hunters and trappers, in addition to other things. The initiatives were prompted by the Humane Society of the United States, which is reportedly considering similar initiatives in other states. This includes Missouri, which has been torn by controversy over the DOC's announcement that river otters, once exempt from trapping, are now fair game.

The department, created in 1933 by the General Assembly, is responsible for protecting and managing forests and wildlife resources in the state. Its goal, according to departmental literature, is to create "healthy, sustainable plant and animal communities well into the future." This includes regulating hunting and trapping, which, if successful, keep fish and animal overpopulation in check.

According to some, approval of any ballot initiatives in Missouri similar to the ones approved in California and Colorado would threaten the conservation agency from doing its job. "My wife is from Colorado, and I've seen what a law like that can do," Purgason says. "There is no coyote or bear hunting anymore, except for certain times in the winter when they're hibernating, and now the bear and coyote populations are exploding.

"In California, people didn't think about the growing populations of mountain lions," Purgason continues. "There are so many now, they're eating two types of endangered bighorn sheep, and there's nothing anybody can do to stop them. Any animal you manage has the potential to get out of control."

But environmental groups such as the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Sierra Club say their opposition to the proposed measure has nothing to do with potential anti-trapping laws. Rather, they feel the measure would severely limit the initiative-petition process, which allows voters to hold government in check. To make the process more difficult makes accountability a helium-filled concept.

Last November, for example, Missourians Against Cockfighting saw passage of their initiative measure Proposition A, which now bans all forms of animal fighting and bear wrestling. But the group had to collect signatures and get the measure on the ballot, because even though a majority of voters hate the idea of male chickens spurring it out to the death, attempts to pass a law through the Legislature failed for more than a dozen years.

According to R. Roger Pryor, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, lawmakers in Jefferson City did receive a letter from supporters of the proposed constitutional amendment, stating in part the following: "With the passage of Proposition A this past year, many hunting and sporting groups were made aware that their rights could be lost through the current ballot referendum process. This proposed legislation would change the State Constitution to require a two-thirds majority to enact any changes to law currently under the purview of the Department of Conservation."

Cockfighting and bear wrestling do not come under the legislative umbrella of the DOC, and the department took no position on Prop A. Likewise, according to a DOC spokesman, it has not yet taken a position on the proposed legislation.

"That in itself says something," says Ken Midkiff, executive director of the Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club. "Anytime there's a proposal to limit the public's ability to promote public policy, a state agency, especially, should have something to say. Are they opposed to democracy?"

Pryor, who stresses that his group takes no position on animal trapping, says that the very idea of tinkering with the ballot-initiative process is anti-democratic. "This would create a very special situation where the conservation department is the only state agency affected."

The Conservation Department is an independent agency in that it receives its funding from a dedicated tax rather than from annual appropriations from the Legislature. Whereas the other departments are "held accountable" to the Legislature by the appropriations process -- to some extent, anyway -- the DOC is run by the Conservation Commission, four people appointed by the governor.

"They are already separated from the Legislature and other agencies," Pryor says. "They set their own budget, and there's very little oversight. This would just further insulate the department from citizen review, because one of the mechanisms that citizens have to rein in an agency is the initiative process."

Midkiff has an extra little problem with the proposal: Last year his group conducted a study of the Conservation Department's forestry practices and found what it claims are glaring examples of mismanagement of the state's forests. The report issued detailed information on sites throughout the state where the study cites such things as destructive private-industry clear-cutting allowed by the Conservation Department. The Sierra Club then called on the department to mimic the policies of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) by accepting and considering public input before making major decisions about managing public lands.

The Conservation Commission, which declared it was "angry and disgusted" by the report, replied to Midkiff's request: "The Missouri Department of Conservation is not the United States Forest Service; It is not in the natural resources best interest to allow USFS type public input; The USFS process inhibits resource management."

In other words, this is an agency that wants the public's money but not its input.

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