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Messenger: Legislative temper tantrum takes aim at Department of Conservation, and misses its mark

Messenger: Legislative temper tantrum takes aim at Department of Conservation, and misses its mark

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Missouri screens deer shot by hunters for chronic wasting disease

Hunters Robert Sanders (left) and Mitch Busken talk about their hunts after Missouri Department of Conservation employees pulled the lymph nodes from the deer Busken shot on Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017. The Missouri Department of Conservation is taking the lymph nodes from deer shot and killed by hunters to have them tested for chronic wasting disease. Photo by David Carson,

I know a few folks who live in Rep. Robert Ross’ legislative district.

Ross is a Republican who represents parts of the south-central Missouri counties of Texas, Howell, Pulaski and Phelps. It’s beautiful country, much of it surrounded by the Mark Twain National Forest.

The folks I know are hunters and fishermen. They love the outdoors. They appreciate the stewardship of the Department of Conservation, which for more than 80 years has been the envy of most other states.

This year, Ross is reviving a gambit that rears its head every couple of years to bring the Department of Conservation under legislative control. Usually the move is motivated by special interests, like in 2016, when Republicans who were upset that the Department of Conservation was regulating the captive deer hunting industry — in order to protect wildlife from chronic wasting disease — tried all sorts of things to punish the department.

They failed. So will Ross (though his House resolution passed out of committee on Tuesday).

But in the meantime, his legislative temper tantrum brings some much-needed attention to how important the independence of Missouri’s award-winning Department of Conservation is.

And that’s a good thing.

Ross’ misguided attack started in a legislative hearing last week over his House Joint Resolution 100. It’s a piece of legislation that, if approved, would give lawmakers rule-making authority over the currently independent Department of Conservation.

Not a single person testified in favor of the legislation. Several testified against it, including the Department of Conservation, and several outdoors organizations, including Ducks Unlimited and the Conservation Federation of Missouri, a nonprofit that supports conservation efforts in the state.

Among the programs of the Conservation Federation of Missouri is the annual Share the Harvest campaign. The program, using some pass-through funding from the Department of Conservation, takes donated deer from hunters and pays to process it and put it in the hands of local food banks where folks who need the meat can use it to feed their families.

Apparently, Ross didn’t like the fact that he held a hearing on his bill and literally everybody was against it. So the next day, as punishment for those who would dare defend the state’s Department of Conservation from a political attack, Ross staged one of his own, offering an amendment in a budget hearing to zero out the Share the Harvest program, as well as a line item for the Operation Game Thief program that reports poachers.

Who knew that there was a political constituency for being pro-poacher?

Ross didn’t return calls for this column. But in a statement he issued to the Missouri Times, he all but acknowledged his budget maneuver was a response to the testimony the day before from the Department of Conservation and the Conservation Federation of Missouri against his House resolution.

“Unfortunately, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) misuses our tax dollars in multiple ways,” Ross wrote. “The Director (Sarah Parker-Pauley) and her team of 3 taxpayer funded lobbyists … spend their days and our dollars walking the halls of the Capitol, testifying against any measure which would bring accountability to the department or empower the citizens of Missouri. In addition, MDC also sends our tax dollars to their political front group, the Conservation Federation of Missouri (CFM), in a scheme to hire additional contracted lobbyists and generate additional opposition to any measure they disagree with.”

The irony, of course, is that in trying to punish those who oppose his bill, Ross proves the wisdom Missouri voters had when they created a Department of Conservation in a way that allows it to be mostly free of legislative and political interference.

Ross doesn’t have to like that, but here’s a suggestion: If he’s going to try to challenge decades of success, how about next time, he find one — just one — person willing to testify in favor of a bill that would gut the agency that protects and funds some of the finest hunting and fishing habitat in the country?

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