Obituary: Batesville native, former Arkansas Game & Fish Director Steve N. Wilson

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Steve N. Wilson was born April 28, 1944, in Batesville, Ark., to Henry Gray Wilson and Leone Searcy Wilson. He passed away in Albuquerque, N.M., on Feb. 21, 2021, due to complications from Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia and Histoplasmosis. In between the dashes he lived a rich and full life.

Steve was an outdoorsman from an early age with a family story of him taking a solo hunting trip with his .22 rifle at age six on the promise to his mom he wouldn’t shoot songbirds. He spent his teenage years playing baseball and hunting, fishing, camping, and canoeing with Batesville friends old and young.

Earning a baseball scholarship, Steve enrolled at Arkansas Tech to study wildlife management after graduating from Batesville High in 1962. At Tech he continued his love of nature and helped establish a Wildlife Club, kicking off his life-long journey of being an advocate for the environment.

May 30, 1964, he married Jo Wentz from Ft. Smith, an Arkansas Tech graduate. An early honeymoon adventure saw the newlyweds drive from Ft. Smith, Ark. to Puyallup, Wash. via Yellowstone National Park, camping along the way. This was Steve’s first taste of the Rocky Mountains and he loved them the rest of his life, returning to Yellowstone National Park as a college graduate to work as an Interpretative Park Ranger in the summer of 1967. He enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Montana and began life as a father after the September birth of his daughter, Stephanie Leone Wilson.

In 1968 he returned to Arkansas accepting a position as a district biologist for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He covered the southeastern quadrant of the state while living in Warren, Ark. with his wife and daughter until enrolling at the University of Arkansas in a Master’s Degree program in Zoology with an emphasis on white-tailed deer reproduction.

While studying in Fayetteville, Steve joined the student organization of the Ozark Society to help protect the Buffalo River he and Jo loved to float and explore. He was also instrumental in establishing the Arkansas chapter of The Wildlife Society.

Steve accepted a position at the Arkansas Highway Department in the newly formed Environmental Division after completing his Master’s Degree. There he led AHD in developing environmental impact statements for what would become Interstate 49 from Alma to Fayetteville and for Interstate 440 in Little Rock through the wetlands. While working on a road project near Fayetteville, he discovered an unnamed darter in a spring which is now named Wilson Springs Nature Preserve to honor his discovery.

In February 1974, Steve and Jo welcomed to their family, Joshua, born at St.Vincent’s Hospital in Little Rock. Five years later in December 1979, the commissioners of the AGFC appointed Steve as the Director of the agency. He entered the role as the youngest director in the country at 35, and held the position for 20 years, the longest tenure in agency history.

A strong advocate for conservation in concert with being an avid outdoorsman, Steve recognized during his earliest days as Director in order to survive, the AGFC needed more revenue than hunting and fishing license fees could produce. His proudest achievement at the AGFC was conceiving the 1/8 cent conservation tax for the state of Arkansas, and working many years to ensure it passed as Amendment 75 in 1996.

He further augmented funding for wildlife in Arkansas by founding the AGFC Foundation, helping it grow into an integral arm of the agency, providing financial support for properties and facilities for conservation education programs. His work also proved instrumental in establishing the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame, and he was subsequently inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, then served as an emeritus member of the AGFC Foundation at his death.

He encouraged his employees to join and participate in professional organizations and led by example via his involvement as president of the International Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies, president of the Southeastern Association of fish & Wildlife Agencies, chairman of the Mississippi Flyway Council, chairman of the National Waterfowl Council, and chairman of the Sport Fishing and Partnership Council.

In 1997 he received the “Seth Gordon Award” for innovative, progressive leadership presented by the IAFWA. 1998 he was awarded the Wetland Conservation Achievement Award from Ducks Unlimited. In 2000 he claimed the “C.W. Watson Award” for distinguished service in Fish & Wildlife Administration, and was later inducted into the Arkansas Tech Hall of Distinction.

Steve also developed into an enthusiastic tennis player after teaching himself how to play by reading tennis books. He played USTA tournaments earning and holding state rankings for many years from his early 30’s through retirement. He continued competitive tennis until his move to Albuquerque. Many of his doubles partners and competitors still remember his difficult high kicking serve.

In 2002. Steve and Jo retired to Norfork, Ark. to live on the White River where Steve could continue to pursue his passion for hunting, fishing, and all things outdoors. At “Papa’s House” Steve was able to introduce his grandchildren to his love for the outdoors, instilling in them an appreciation for canoeing, camping, hiking, and climbing.

Steve leaves behind his wife, Jo, of 57 years; his sister, Jan, of Mt. Home; his daughter Stephanie and son-in-law Paul Wilson-Scott, both of Albuquerque; son Joshua of Fayetteville; and three grandchildren, Rowe, Beck, and Sujina all of Albuquerque, as well as his brother-in-law Dr. Robert Wentz of Union, S.C., and brother-in-law Dr. John McGowan III, of LaGrange, Ill., numerous nieces and nephews who he loved and nurtured and cousins Elizabeth Bunch of Batesville; Laura Roach and son Dane of Batesville; and Taylor Handford of Little Rock.

He leaves behind many beautiful friendships statewide in Arkansas and across the United States, as well as exchange student sons from Costa Rica and Sweden.

Services to be held soon via Zoom.

Memorials can be sent to organizations close to Steve’s heart:

AGFC Foundation
#2 Natural Resources Drive
Little Rock, AR 72205
http://www.agff.org

Food Bank of North Central Arkansas
1042 Highland Circle
Mountain Home, AR 72653
http://www.foodbanknca.org

Baxter County Library Foundation
300 Library Hill
Mountain Home, AR 72653
http://www.baxtercountylibrary.org

Arrangements are by Kirby and Family Funeral and Cremation Services – Mountain Home, Arkansas.

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