Mississippi Conservation Summary

Mississippi’s gentle topography presents an unassuming face to first-time visitors, but those who have spent time here know a different state: a land of startling variety, unusual wildness and hidden natural treasures. Appalachian foothills, coastal bogs and savannahs, pristine barrier islands, relictual prairies, lush mixed-hardwood bluffs and ravines, and one of the world’s largest floodplains are just a few of the notable ecosystems that converge here at the continental crossroads of the mid-South. In the minds of many Americans, Mississippi will forever be associated with the namesake river that makes up its western border, and whose floods and meanders have helped build some of the world’s most fertile soil. Yet the mighty Mississippi is only the flagship in the state’s fleet of remarkable rivers, which also features the Pascagoula, the largest free-flowing waterway in the contiguous United States.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

Mississippi’s ecological variety and moist, temperate climate sustain a large diversity of wildlife, including several endemic or near-endemic taxa. Among these are the bayou darter, a brilliantly colored small fish restricted to the Bayou Pierre system; the Camp Shelby burrowing crayfish, a specialized crustacean confined to a small zone of pitcher plant bogs on the DeSoto National Forest; the yellow-blotched map turtle, found only in the Pascagoula River drainage; and the Mississippi gopher frog, which once ranged more widely but is now found nowhere else in the world. The matrix of longleaf pinelands and various wetlands scattered across south Mississippi serves as a hotspot for diversity, supporting a number of unique species. The federally endangered Mississippi sandhill crane, the rarest of the six sandhill crane subspecies in North America, now exists almost solely within the pine flatwoods and savannas of the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

One of the most significant single conservation successes in the state was the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks’ acquisition of the first 32,000 acres of the Pascagoula River Wildlife Management Area in 1976. Since then, through partnerships with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, The Nature Conservancy, and other agencies and organizations, additional acreage has been purchased, thereby preserving a significant corridor of forests and wetlands along the Pascagoula River—the largest remaining undammed river in the lower 48 states. Mississippi’s attention to protection of its waterbodies also includes the Scenic Streams Stewardship Program, through which the state legislature has officially designated ten rivers and streams as scenic waterways. Joining these parks, management areas, and protected waterways are approximately 80 public and private properties listed on the Mississippi Natural Areas Registry, which was founded in 1976 as an integral part of one of the first Natural Heritage Programs in the nation.

Threats

Although Mississippi has never been highly industrialized, the state’s generally low topographic relief render much of it suitable for agriculture, and most of the land has been cleared at one time or another to be used for farming (although large areas of farmland have since reverted to second-growth forest). In the 19th and 20thcenturies, the prairie belts were nearly completely usurped for agriculture. Rich floodplains, too, were particularly attractive for farming, but use of these areas increased the demand for flood control. Many streams, particularly in the northern half of the state and in the Mississippi Delta, have now been channelized, and the Mississippi River drainage is now bound within a straitjacket of levees, while its major tributaries are tamed behind huge flood storage reservoirs in the hills above the Delta. Additional threats to streams include degradation and destabilization by sand and gravel mining, as well as destabilization by headcutting, an erosive process often triggered by channelization projects far downstream. The sandiest, poorest soils have never been suitable for conventional agriculture, but along with many abandoned farmlands these areas are now used for industrial forestry, a practice common throughout the state. This involves establishing dense plantings of conifers (usually of species not originally present on the site, such as loblolly or slash pine), often with the assistance of aerial application of fertilizer and herbicides to suppress competitors. Within a few years, the natural herbaceous layer is shaded out, and the numerous species which rely on it die or leave. This long-term upheaval and degradation of the natural habitat is one of the key threats facing Mississippi’s wildlife.

Other threats have exacted a toll on Mississippi’s native biota more recently. The creation of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway facilitated barge transport at great cost to many fish and mussel species, and had the unforeseen consequence of encouraging the proliferation of chip mills and the clearing of northeast Mississippi’s second-growth hardwood forests. Meanwhile, urban sprawl has increased significantly in south Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as coastal residents have sought safer home sites farther inland. The effect of this sprawl has been to increase habitat fragmentation, to increase the demand for suppression of natural fires (which historically maintained numerous plant communities), and to degrade or directly destroy some of Mississippi’s most distinctive habitats. The Mississippi Delta and other important agricultural zones have also experienced decades of heavy applications of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, many of which find their way onto non-target sites and drainages in run-off and spray drift.

Mississippi’s Future

Despite the threats, Mississippians have reasons for optimism. A large fraction of the state’s area is publicly owned, and although much work remains to be done towards integrating these public lands and incorporating more ecologically representative areas, many outstanding examples of Mississippi’s distinctive ecosystems and natural features are already protected. Mississippians are intimately tied to the land, and a recent proliferation of environmental organizations and restoration projects has channeled this commitment into model conservation successes, such as those of the Pascagoula corridor and Osborn Prairie. Mississippi may lack true wilderness, but it is a place where wildness is always close at hand. That wildness encourages hope for a bright conservation future.

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