MDC director responds to column

    EDITOR’S NOTE: The following was submitted by Missouri Department of Conservation Director Sara Parker Pauley in response to an outdoor column written by Bill Cooper entitled “Winds of change for Missouri conservation regulations” that was printed on the Outdoor page in the November 26 edition of the Cuba Free Press and posted at www.threeriverspublishing.com.

The column did not appear in that week’s Saint James Press or Steelville Star-Crawford Mirror due to space limitations but remains available online. Cooper, who is a regular contributor to our newspapers, also issued a response.

By Sara Parker Pauley, Director
Missouri Department of Conservation
    Whenever I share about conservation in Missouri, which is often as the ninth director of the Missouri Department of Conservation, I always start with the most important fact—citizens are the heart and soul of this conservation story. They created this department with their voice and their vote more than 80 years ago, including having the foresight to create a science-based, apolitical agency with a four-person Missouri Conservation Commission to guide our conservation mission. Citizens stepped up again in the 1970s to provide dedicated funding to support conservation efforts for the long-term in Missouri. This Missouri model of conservation, especially the citizen support, is a gold standard that many other states aspire to put in place.
    I value the voice of our citizens so much. I get hundreds of emails, letters, phone calls, and impromptu chats at the grocery store and gas station sharing their thoughts about conservation, including compliments on things we are doing well and also areas that need improvement. The feedback is as diverse as our citizens in Missouri. I immediately share this feedback with our conservation staff, partners, and volunteers, so we can keep getting better at serving citizens so fundamental to our mission of conserving the fish, forest, and wildlife resources of the state.
    Right before the Thanksgiving holiday, Bill Cooper, an outdoor writer in Missouri, who I have a lot of respect for, wrote an editorial, “Winds of Change for Missouri Conservation Regulations,” in this publication criticizing the department on recent deer-hunting regulations. While I have no concerns with criticism, especially differing opinions to help us improve on what we do, it was the strong accusations and assumptions that were in error that was disappointing, especially since his strong voice as an outdoor writer helps educate hunters and potential new hunters in our great state.
    As I always try to do, my first step was to personally call Bill to chat about the misinformation and to better understand his point of view. It was a good conversation. After sharing additional facts with Bill, including asking the question on how to correct some of this misinformation for hunters, he suggested I write a rebuttal to correct those accusations and assumptions. Here are three quick points to share.
    1. Bill states that, “the winds of change in how deer hunting functions in the Show-Me State ruffled some feathers in some arenas, while most hunters were oblivious to rule changes. They were not announced by the Missouri Department of Conservation.” This is not accurate. There have been no rule changes related to baiting. The Commission follows the statutory rulemaking process which often includes a public comment period. We also communicate all regulation changes through news releases, website, sharing with media, and in our regulations booklets to educate our hunters on any and all changes.
    2. Bill also shared, “I had caught wind of rumblings about MDC officials issuing orders to conservation agents prior to the 2020 Missouri deer season to avoid issuing tickets to individuals who hunted deer over corn piles this year. Baiting has been illegal in Missouri for decades…Little did the people with bait sites know that if they did not clean up the bait as requested, they would not be issued tickets for baiting deer.” Unfortunately, this statement is also untrue. Baiting is still illegal in Missouri and agents issued 70 tickets this season for baiting. The baiting regulation has not changed nor is there an effort to change baiting regulations by the Commission. Agents did make a proactive push to educate hunters about the baiting regulation before the season started to help with voluntary compliance to ensure they knew bait must be removed 10 days prior to the start of the season. We wanted to have those one-on-one conversations and educate on the “Wildlife Code of Missouri” for voluntary compliance before citations were issued.
    3. Lastly, and perhaps the most disheartening part, was Bill’s personal attack on two of our conservation Commissioners, Barry Orscheln and Dr. Steve Harrison. He attacked one for selling corn at his family farm store (a business that also sells camping, hunting, and fishing equipment year around) and the other for previously having a high-fenced hunting operation on his farm. Neither of those factor into our regulations process, including the proactive education by our staff on baiting regulations and our enforcement of those regulations. We are fortunate to have four commissioners, who give thousands of hours each year guiding conservation decisions and direction on a volunteer basis, on our conservation team. They receive no payment or compensation, other than their dedication and service to the citizens and furthering the conservation mission of Missouri. To suggest their motives and vision are not to the highest standard is an oversight, in my humble opinion, on Bill’s part.
    I appreciate this opportunity to provide additional clarification from Bill’s original editorial. Again, I’m thankful for the chance to talk to Bill directly and for his suggestion to provide additional insight. As someone with a journalism background, I am truly grateful for our great outdoor writers in this state and the local media who help share ways all Missourians can connect with the outdoors. In a time of great stress with this pandemic, the outdoors has become a healing and happy place for so many.
    Have a safe and healthy holiday! As always, keep sending me your great feedback. Hearing from you is the best part of what I get to do.

Director’s comments off course

By Bill Cooper
    Missouri Department of Conservation Director Sarah Parker Pauley recently responded to my newspaper column article, “Winds of change for conservation regulations.” Pauley is a highly respected force in the conservation efforts of MDC and across the nation. We mutually respect one another. However, as evidenced by my article and her response to it, sometimes we stand on opposite sides of some issues.
    I addressed several issues in my article, from the rapidly implemented changes at Maramec Spring Park from a four-fish to a five-fish limit for 2020. The other trout parks retained their four-fish limit. I asked how and why the regulation, or policy change happened. The waters are rather muddy about what is conservation regulation and what is conservation policy. I received no response to this question from Director Pauley.
    In Pauley’s response to my article, she said that “it was the strong accusations and assumptions that were in error, that was disappointing.”
    In regard to Pauley’s statement about there being no regulation changes concerning baiting of deer, she is technically correct. I have seen no official statement or written material that states that there have been or are to be changes in deer baiting regulations. However, the facts of official baiting regulations were diluted in the dissemination of information to field staff at some point. I personally spoke to two MDC employees about baiting regulations. One was from the north. He stated, “There are to be no tickets issued for deer hunting over corn piles this deer season.” I spoke to another MDC employee in the southern part of the state about the issue. He stated, “Deer bating regulations have been relaxed.”
     The statements of these two MDC employees, who have never spoken to one another, is clear evidence that something is amiss with the “official” deer baiting regulations.
    After our conversation about my aforementioned article, Pauley texted me a couple of documents. One indicated that deer baiting enforcement was to some degree being shared with local communities to police their own ranks, which is a little cloudy in my mind. The second document covered deer baiting citations from 2018 through 2020. In the three season period of time, citations have decreased by about one-third. Am I to believe that deer baiting has decreased? I’m inclined to believe deer baiting is increasing, while citations are decreasing.
    Pauley stated that 70 baiting citations were issued during the 2020 rifle deer season. Seventy for the entire state? It’s common knowledge that baiting is a serious problem in the Show-Me State. Is it in practice, being largely ignored by MDC? In my opinion, our serious deer baiting problems are essentially being ignored by the agency. I deer hunted in Shannon County a couple of days this past deer season. Shannon County is known as one of the worst baiting counties in the state, and deer dogs run rampant. Shannon County has two agents for the entire county, yet one was pulled from the county to serve elsewhere. It is as if MDC has given up on the enormous problems in Shannon County.
    Pauley goes on to say that my statements about two commissioners were disheartening. My statements were my opinion and the opinions of many other Missouri outdoorsmen. Barry Orscheln sells deer corn and minerals in his stores, which are commonly used for illegal baiting of deer. To me, and others, that is a clear conflict of interest for anyone sitting on the Missouri Conservation Commission. Dr. Steve Harrison has owned and operated a high-fence operation for deer, another clear conflict of interest for a conservation commissioner. Each of them may be wonderful people, but having them on the commission is like letting the fox into the chicken coop.
    Having Orscheln and Harrison on the Conservation Commission clearly sends the wrong message to the hunters and conservation-minded citizens of Missouri. Missourians have opposed baiting and high-fence operations for decades. We claim that our Missouri Department of Conservation is free of politics, but the governor appoints the four commissioners, no more than two to be of one political affiliation. Had outdoorsmen been permitted to vote on Orscheln and Harrison sitting on the commission, I dare say they would have failed miserably.
    I suggested to Pauley that she write a rebuttal to my article, but not to correct misinformation by me, as she suggested. I reported no misinformation. What I reported came directly from MDC personnel. Perhaps there was a misinterpretation information that passed through the chain of command from Jefferson City to MDC field staff.
    Director Pauley and I both have dedicated much our lives to the Missouri outdoors and encouraging our citizens to enjoy the many benefits of our great outdoor recreation opportunities in our state. We may be disappointed in one another over these current issues, but I promise that neither of us will let up on our commitment to the bountiful natural resources of our state and the grand people who utilize them. Pauley has the authority to control what written public information statements come from MDC, but I will never submit to her seeing my written material before it goes to press as she suggested in our conversation. I have neither a moral nor legal obligation to do so. I am responsible to the outdoorsmen of Missouri.    
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award-winning outdoor writer and member of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and lives in rural St. James. He is host of “Outside Again Adventures TV-Online” and “Wild at Heart” on ESPN 107.3FM in Rolla. You can follow Cooper at www.facebook.com/OutsideAlways, www.aoutdoorstv.com and www.espn1073.com.