John Winkelman

John Winkelman

The headline seemed like fake news when I first saw it on Facebook, but it came from an organization that I believe to be a reliable source. Everything you see on social media should be subject to scrutiny before sharing it with others.

According to the Missouri Hunters for Fair Chase, one of the two men appointed to the state Conservation Commission by Gov. Mike Parson has (or at least had) close connections to the captive deer industry.

While the evidence is circumstantial, the outbreak of chronic wasting disease affecting wild deer in Missouri is coincidentally close to captive deer operations.

Dr. Steven Harrison, an orthodontist, and Mark McHenry, a retired parks and recreation director, were appointed by the governor to fill six-year terms on the four-member commission. The commission members begin serving immediately, but they must be confirmed by the state Senate to make the appointments permanent.

The biographical information about Harrison, shared in a state Department of Conservation press release, touted his life as a farmer, his dedication to hunting and fishing, his membership in the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, Farm Bureau and several other organizations. A professional dedicated to education and the outdoors, Harrison holding a big bass in the press release photo seems like a great fit.

The release did not mention Harrison’s role as the founding president of the Missouri Big Game Farmers and Breeders Association, which is now known as the Missouri Deer Association. The organization acts on behalf of the state’s captive big game industry. Until recently, Harrison held a permit to operate a “big game hunting preserve” near Rolla.

Those details came from the Missouri Hunters for Fair Chase.

In response to questions from the organization, Harrison replied in an email that his role with the breeders’ association was just “one element of information from many years ago.”

But as recently as July 2016, according to documents found by Fair Chase, Harrison had sent a character reference to a federal court in support of Charles “Sam” James, a founder of the Big Game Farmers group. 

James had been indicted by a federal grand jury for smuggling deer into Florida, pleaded guilty to smuggling deer into Arkansas in the past, and in June 2016 he was charged in Linn County, Missouri, with felony conspiracy to falsify a document about a deer being transported to his big-game farm.

In Harrison’s written statement to the court, he acknowledged working with James and making a “mutual decision that the only way we were going to be effective in any interaction with the Missouri Department of Conservation was to become organized.”

After the Conservation Commission approved new chronic wasting disease regulations affecting the captive deer and elk farmers, the industry sued the commission in 2015. That case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the conservation department in 2018, acknowledging its authority over all big-game species in the state.

Missouri Hunters for Fair Chase sent its plea for further evaluation of the appointees with some urgency, because the state Senate was called to a special session beginning Sept. 9. Technically, the Senate could have approved the appointments, but Parson withdrew the nominations of both men. He could reappoint them in time for the General Assembly’s regular session in January.

Maybe all of Harrison’s other credentials would make him a great commissioner, but his close association with an organization that has been at odds with the department and is regulated by the conservation commission seems to be a significant conflict of interest. The only way we can hold commissioners accountable is through the election of the governors who appoint them and the senators who confirm them.

Because the commission is a public entity, its meetings are open to the public. I recently watched a webcast of the August meeting and what struck me most about the proceeding was how little was discussed in the public forum.

What I found even more alarming was that chairman Don Bedell told the audience in attendance and on the web camera that even though they were moving through their actions quickly, they had discussed and deliberated about the issues before the meeting.

I’m not advocating for meetings to be longer than the two-plus hours they already occupy, but the discussion by the people representing state residents and taxpayers ought to be more officially on the record.

It is equally disappointing that Harrison’s history with the Deer Breeders Association was not acknowledged by the department or the commission. Thanks to and for uncovering the connection.

John J. Winkelman is community engagement manager at Mercy Hospital Jefferson. If you have news for the Leader’s Outdoor News page, e-mail and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.