Missouri Department of Conservation Director Sara Parker Pauley was the featured speaker during the Farmington Regional Chamber of Commerce monthly luncheon earlier this week.

Pauley, who recently marked one year at the helm of the department, was invited to speak by Rep. Kevin Engler, who also serves as a board member for the chamber.

Pauley served as the director of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for nine years before becoming the conservation department director.

As a Columbia native, Pauley said she knows well the story of the meeting at a hotel in Columbia in 1935 which led to the creation of the operations model the department has developed under since its creation.

At that time, Pauley said, the forests were decimated and wildlife, in most parts of the states, was non-existent due to market hunting. The fish and game agency of the time was heavily politicized.

“Times were not good,” she said. “But, it is a beautiful story of passionate citizens getting together and saying ‘things must change.'"

Pauley explained it was sportsmen, community and civic leaders meeting on Sept. 10, 1935 and working together at the Tiger Hotel in Columbia in the drafting of Amendment 4 to create a non-political conservation agency, and then working to have the measure placed on the ballot.

On Nov. 3, 1936, voters approved the measure by nearly three-fourths supporting the measure.

“We are finishing up celebration of the Department of Conservation’s 80th anniversary,” she said. “That’s a long history of conservation, success, the comeback of many of our game species — both the wildlife and fish, and restoration of many of our forest lands and grass lands and other habitats.”

To celebrate that milestone, Pauley spent part of her first year traveling around the state to eight public open house sessions, asking Missouri’s residents what they would like to see from the department in the future. She said more than 1,600 people attended those sessions.

“I think part of the celebration is not only to recognize the past, the successes and some of the tribulations and trials ...,” she said, “... but also to reflect on the future as well.”

Pauley said one of the biggest challenges from a natural resource perspective is the effects of Chronic Wasting Disease on the state's deer and elk population.

“We know that once a member of a certain family — be it a whitetail (deer) or elk—contract the disease, it is 100 percent fatal,” she said. “There is still so much unknown about the disease which is really causing the greatest amount of concern.”

That, in turn, leads officials to look at the economic impact on the disease along with the loss of food source.

“Communities like Farmington and others around the state really get an economic boost from people coming in to hunt,” she said. “And, it’s a source of protein. My husband and I eat a lot of venison throughout the year.

“It’s a part of our history, it’s a part of our landscape, and it’s certainly something we take very seriously, which is why we’ve done such aggressive sampling. Then, we respond with culling in certain areas where there are known positives to make sure to the extent we can contain the disease that we do that."

Pauley said the amount of confirmed CWD cases in Missouri is lower than surrounding states, something the director credits to the aggressive sampling. During opening weekend of the recent fall firearms portion of the state's annual deer seasons around 16,000 tissue samples were gathered from deer harvested in specific areas - areas where CWD has been found before, or neighboring counties. Both Washington and St. Francois counties were part of that sampling in mid November.

The director said the department is currently receiving about 500 reports per week from labs in Missouri and Colorado, putting them on track to have all 16,000 samples tested by year's end. At that time the MDC will release their findings. 

It was also said that even if no new cases of CWD are confirmed in the counties of St. Francois or Washington, a watchful eye will remain for at least the next couple years. 

Another hot button issue in the state's conservation ranks is feral (wild) hogs. 

“We’re putting people on the ground to try to eradicate feral hogs in this state,” she said, with landowners contacting the department when the signs of feral hogs are found.

The department shifted its focus a couple years ago away from an open season on the feral hogs, instead implementing a "no hunt" ban on the nuisance and turning the attention to trapping and killing the animals instead. It was determined that an open season on feral hogs only made them more popular in the eyes of some hunters, leading to the raising and release of hogs into remote areas to increase the population to be hunted. 

Banning the hunting of wild hogs and putting the responsibility for eradication on the shoulders of MDC staff took the "sport" out of hog hunting for the general public ... which was the goal. Additionally, trapping often allows for an entire sounder to be captured at once, where the previous method would mean a hunter might locate a sounder and kill one or two with a rifle before the remaining pigs scattered, only to continue to multiply. 

Feral hogs can quickly destroy crop land and wildlife habitat for native species.

Pauley also fielded questions following the luncheon pertaining to black bears, mountain lions and elk. She said the elk population continues to flourish in and around Peck Ranch in the south central area of the state, ground zero for the elk reintroduction program started a few years ago. She said testing in the past year showed 80 percent of the adult female elk had been impregnated.

As for black bear, it was reported that more than 250 resident bears have been confirmed in southern Missouri, with that number growing at a steady rate. Pauley said the benchmark for population growth before a hunting season of some type is implemented will likely be around 500 bears. However, she added, that decision is still in flux based on information constantly being collected by department biologists.

While the regular sighting of mountain lions, or evidence of the big cats, was mentioned early in the question and answer portion of the meeting, the conversation never circled back around to the topic. 

Pauley said the department is actively working on a mission of helping people discover nature for the first time, or to reconnect to nature through a number of activities. She noted the conservation areas available in the area, including Pickle Springs Conservation Area, Clearwater Lake and Hughes Mountain as places for everyone to enjoy for hiking, water sports or exploring and hunting.

“We’re trying a lot of different things to not only reconnect with the parents and reactivate their interest in the out of doors, but to introduce younger people for the first time,” she said, noting the rod and reel check-out program at local libraries as just one of many ways the department is working to get the next generation outside.

Other activities include “Discover nature” programs and apprentice hunter programs. And, because 90 percent of land in the state of Missouri is privately owned, the department is working with land owners by offering a financial incentive for those opening their land for hunting, fishing, hiking or bird watching.

“We’re constantly looking at ways to increase opportunities for folks (that) are close to home,” Pauley said. “We’ve got to eliminate the barriers. We’ve got to get folks outdoors.”

Shawnna Robinson is the managing editor of the Farmington Press and can be reached at 573-518-3628 or srobinson@farmingtonpressonline.com