The son of a South Dakota state senator received more than $1 million in COVID relief funding for a business he says is located in Union Center, S.D., but which public records and other data indicate actually operates in Texas.

Chris Cammack, son of Senate Majority Leader Gary Cammack, received more than $700,000 in state coronavirus relief funds designed to help businesses in South Dakota recover losses suffered during the pandemic. Rules of the program require that small businesses “must be physically located in South Dakota” in order to qualify for the funding.

Chris Cammack owns Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios, a business he started more than a decade ago in a building on the Cammack family ranch in Union Center, a town of 400 in Meade County.

Cammack received $709,792 in state coronavirus relief funds in early 2021 to cover losses he reported at the Union Center business during the pandemic. Cammack also received more than $300,000 in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government to keep 10 workers at the Union Center location employed.

However, a News Watch investigation using tax and property documents, source interviews, website information and a public statement from Chris Cammack indicates that Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios is run from a site in Cypress, Texas, where Cammack owns a 7,300-square-foot studio building and he and his wife Felicia own an $880,000 home.

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Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios was merged with Brush Country Studios of Cypress, Texas, in late 2014 or early 2015, and Chris and Felicia Cammack now own and operate the combined Brush Country/Prairie Mountain business in Cypress, according to the company website and Texas property records.

The taxidermy studio in Union Center still exists, but a nearby business operator, Brian Walker, said there had been no recent commercial activity there. News Watch visited the site three times in 2021 and saw no activity or people present. Sen. Cammack, in an interview, told News Watch that his son’s taxidermy studio is located in Texas.

Chris Cammack did not respond to phone calls or an email seeking comment for this article, and state officials overseeing the coronavirus relief program declined to comment on individual grant applications or recipients.

This image from Google Maps shows the Cypress, Texas properties owned by Chris Cammack. The Brush Country/Prairie Mountain studios building has a red roof at the top of the image, and the home just to the south has a gray roof. (Google Maps Photo)
This image from Google Maps shows the Cypress, Texas properties owned by Chris Cammack. The Brush Country/Prairie Mountain studios building has a red roof at the top of the image, and the home just to the south has a gray roof. (Google Maps Photo)

The state Coronavirus Relief Fund program was started in 2020 as a way to distribute federal Cares Act funds to help South Dakota businesses remain viable by covering some of their cash losses incurred during the worst of the pandemic.

As of September 2021, the South Dakota relief program had distributed more than $490 million in payments to 5,833 applicants. Grants were awarded under several separate programs, including small businesses, small nonprofits, acute healthcare providers, community providers, safety-net organizations and startups.

Providing false information to the state coronavirus relief program or the federal PPP program can be considered fraud. To date, no fraud has been uncovered by two firms hired by the state to audit the coronavirus relief grants, according to Colin Keeler, director of financial systems at the South Dakota Bureau of Finance and Management. About a dozen complaints of potential fraud and abuse, and dozens of application mistakes, are being investigated by the state and its contractors, Keeler said.

Chris Cammack testified by phone before the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on March 3, 2020, in favor of a bill that would allow non-residents of South Dakota to get a special license to hunt on land they own in the state.

Cammack told the committee that while living and working on his family’s ranch in Union Center, he started Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios more than a decade ago.

Cammack told lawmakers that eventually, his South Dakota taxidermy business “outgrew” the Union Center location and that he and his wife “ended up purchasing a taxidermy shop in Houston, Texas, which is where we reside, where our home mostly is now,” according to a tape of the hearing.

Cammack added: “I still own cattle, I still own land in South Dakota, I still come back to South Dakota every chance I get, but work calls me to Texas.”

The combined Brush Country/Prairie Mountain studios in Cypress, Texas performs taxidermy and also constructs elaborate trophy rooms.

After Chris and Felicia Cammack bought Brush Country Studios, Texas tax records show the business was registered with the state on Dec. 30, 2014 under ownership of Chris Cammack. On Feb. 5, 2015, a limited liability company called PM Wildlife Studios at the same address in Cypress was registered with the state of Texas under ownership of Chris Cammack.

Gary Cammack
Gary Cammack

Property records from Harris County show that Chris Cammack owns adjacent properties in Cypress — a 7,341-square-foot building at 16526 Cypress Rosehill Road, which Google maps lists as the Brush Country taxidermy studio; and a 4,415-square-foot single-family residence at 16522 Cypress Rosehill Road owned by Chris and Felicia Cammack.

A satellite view of the Cypress address for Brush Country Studios on Google Maps shows a long building with several cars in the parking lot. A large home sits just south of the studio building.

On the Brush Country/Prairie Mountain company website, the address for the business is listed as 16526 Cypress Rosehill Road in Cypress, Texas, and separate Facebook pages for Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios and Brush Country Studios both list the Cypress address. The Facebook pages and business website have phone numbers with area codes in the Houston area.

Texas state tax records show Chris Cammack as the owner of Brush Country Studios in Cypress and another business called PM Wildlife Studios, also located at the business address in Cypress.

In South Dakota, Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios is listed as an LLC in good standing under ownership of Chris Cammack. State records show it has a physical address at 16970 Highway 34 in Union Center, on the Cammack family ranch.

A News Watch reporter visited the Union Center site twice in June and again in mid-July and saw no activity at the site.

During the July visit, Sen. Cammack drove up and gave a brief, taped interview.

“He’s in Texas, but this is where he lives, here,” Sen. Cammack said of his son. “Most of the time he spends on people’s job sites.”

Asked about Chris and his wife listing a Texas address on the state taxidermy association website, Sen. Cammack replied: “They go there once in a while because of his business being there,” adding, “this is home here … this is where he lives; his mail comes here, he votes here.”

Sen. Cammack later added: “That [Texas] is where the studio, the business is. This is the home address; the studio, like I told you, is the address down there.”

Other than the main home on the Cammack family ranch, the other residential structure is a 640-square-foot loft above the taxidermy studio, according to Meade County property records.

Brian Walker, a 15-year resident of Union Center who manages the CBH Co-Op Cenex convenience store across the highway from the Cammack ranch, said in July that he had not seen recent activity at the studio building.

Chris Cammack
Chris Cammack

“I haven’t seen Chris for a long time, so I don’t know that he’s living or working here; it’s been a year, probably two years,” said Walker, who noted that he is often at his convenience store business seven days a week.

In late September, News Watch called Walker again.

“It was very shortly after you came around, we started seeing them over there, and they’re actually building things there,” Walker said. “It was kind of a weird coincidence.”

Chris Cammack’s businesses also received forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government for two taxidermy businesses with nearly the same names in South Dakota and Texas.

PPP loans are forgivable loans designed to help companies suffering financial losses during the pandemic to keep employees paid and working.

Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios in Union Center received a $153,600 PPP loan in April 2020 to protect 10 jobs with an annual payroll of $737,280 in 2019, according to Small Business Administration information on Prairie Mountain Wildlife Studios of Union Center received a second PPP loan of $161,417 in January 2021.

At the same time, Cammack’s LLC in Texas, PM Wildlife Studios, received a $241,600 PPP loan in April 2020 to protect 25 jobs at an estimated annual 2019 payroll of $1.16 million; PM Wildlife Studios in Texas then received a second PPP loan of $241,600 in January 2021.