Feb. 24, 2021
Randy Zellers Assistant Chief of Communications
LITTLE ROCK — Steve N. Wilson, a former director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and passionate conservationist, died in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Feb. 21 from complications of chronic lymphocytic leukemia and histoplasmosis. He was 76 years old.
Wilson’s 20-year tenure stands as the longest of any AGFC director. He led the agency from 1979 until his retirement in June 2000, but that was not his only role at the agency. Wilson’s first experience with conservation in Arkansas was shortly after receiving his bachelor of science degree in biology from Arkansas Tech University in 1967. He worked from 1968 to 1969 as a wildlife biologist at the AGFC before attending the University of Arkansas, where he received his master of science degree in wildlife ecology in 1971, and completed coursework requirements for a Ph.D. in zoology in 1972. After completing his formal education, Wilson worked at the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, where he rose quickly through the agency’s Environmental Division, briefly becoming division chief before accepting the position as director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He replaced Andrew Hulsey, who had been the agency’s director for the previous 10 years.
“Steve was director when I came on board at the AGFC,” current AGFC Director Pat Fitts said. “I was fortunate to learn from his example early in my career. His level-headedness throughout turbulent times and perseverance to accomplish the work needed to further the AGFC’s conservation legacy were exactly what this agency needed to become what it is today.”
During his career, the Batesville native worked with 36 different commissioners and oversaw the development and expansion of many wildlife management areas and landmarks in Arkansas conservation. Arkansas’s first modern-era bear hunt began in 1980, shortly after his arrival. Elk hunting also opened during the Wilson years after the reintroduction of elk in the northern portion of the state. Much of the work leading to the opening of Arkansas’s alligator season owes a debt to Wilson’s influence in reestablishing Arkansas’s largest reptile to its native range in The Natural State. Many new fisheries, mostly owned by other agencies and municipalities, also were planned and developed during Wilson’s time as AGFC director. Lake Columbia, Lake Barnett and Cane Creek Lake are just a few of the excellent fisheries developed during Wilson’s tenure.
Until Wilson’s time as director, all business was handled at the AGFC’s headquarters in Little Rock, and remote work was done from employees’ houses and trucks. Under Wilson’s direction, 10 regional offices were planned and constructed to better serve Arkansans on a local level and house the work of hundreds of employees throughout the state.
Wilson’s proudest achievement as director was the 1996 passage of Amendment 75, which collected one-eighth-cent general sales tax to be divided among Arkansas State Parks, Keep Arkansas Beautiful, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and the AGFC. The amendment’s passage paved the way for the AGFC to be a leader in conservation and conservation education throughout the country. In addition to increased lands for public use, the agency has been able to increase the number of wildlife officers in every county of the state, as well as expand outdoor education through five nature centers, four conservation education centers and many statewide programs such as the Arkansas National Archery in the Schools Program, the Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program and the Fishing in The Natural State Program. While Wilson was not directly involved in the development of these programs and facilities, his legacy and leadership set the groundwork to make all these accomplishments possible.
Wilson didn’t just lead the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, he led conservation efforts on a national and international scale. During his AGFC career, he served as the president of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, The Ozark Society, The Wildlife Society, the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, and was chairman of the National Waterfowl Council, the Mississippi Flyway Council, the North American Wetlands Conservation Council and the Sport Fishing and Partnership Council.
In addition to professional organizations, Wilson was an influential member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ducks Unlimited and Trout Unlimited during and after his AGFC employment.