If Jeff Harris needs a pick-up line, he might say, “Let me tell you about birds and bees.”
The bee specialist for the Mississippi State University Extension Service is also a birder and president of the Oktibbeha County Audubon Society. One of his favorite things to do is spot painted sparrows in the Black Prairie Wildlife Management Area near Fire Tower Road near Crawford.
“The males, in particular, are so pretty, almost showy,” Harris said of the colorful bird. “They are quite rare as breeders in this area as this is considered to be at the edge of their range. But they nest there.
Neither the painted sparrow nor one of Harris’ other favorite birds, the lark sparrow, are technically endangered. Their local habitat, however, is squarely in the crosshairs of county legislators and at least one state legislator.
County supervisors have scheduled a public hearing for 9:15 a.m. Monday in the courthouse boardroom on whether to attempt to return the 6,000-acre Black Prairie WMA to private ownership. The state owns the land, which is managed by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, so the county cannot act on its own to remove it from public hands, the administrator said. county, Jay Fisher. He can, however, put his grain of salt with the State.
“We have no authority,” Fisher said. “It would just be the board deciding whether to advocate for legislation to put it in private hands.”
The state purchased most of the property for the WMA between 1996 and 1998 from a private landowner, adding the last 200 or so acres with federal dollars in 2013, said MDWFP wildlife office chief Russ Walsh. . It facilitates public hunting and fishing, among other outdoor recreation, and is “one of the last intact native grasslands” in the state, he said.
State Sen. Chuck Younger (R, Lowndes County), who serves on the Senate Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Committee, believes the WMA is underutilized and mismanaged. When he approached supervisors with his feelings, he found a receptive audience to try to put ownership back on the tax rolls.
“From a county perspective, it’s a loss of revenue,” Fisher said.
Younger was more specific, saying the county was losing $33,000 a year in property taxes alone, while WMA lands belong to the state.
“There’s a lot of good things about it, but there’s also a lot of damn negative things about it,” Younger said. “There is a $350,000 house and two buildings that are empty. These should at least be rented. … There aren’t a lot of people hunting there, and (MDWFP) just leaves a lot (the earth) to grow in the thickets.
“It’s just a lot of trash,” he added.
Supervisor Jeff Smith, who represents District 4 where the WMA sits, said he’s also heard grumblings that the WMA is underutilized. He said he was in favor of returning it to private ownership, but he approaches Monday’s hearing with an open mind.
“I’m interested in hearing from people who want to keep things the way they are,” he told The Dispatch.
If emails are any indicator, Fisher said there are plenty of them.
The county posted a notice of public hearing last week in The Dispatch and welcomes written public comments on the matter until noon Friday. So far, Fisher said, his office has received more than 700 responses, including the overwhelming majority of people who want the property to remain public.
“Some public land advocacy groups (statewide) got their hands on this ad, so I have no idea how many of these people actually live in Lowndes County,” Fisher said. “Comments from people who want this to be made private again are not as many, but we’ve had some feedback from that direction as well.”
Fisher, Smith and Younger all said they were “not yet aware” of any potential buyers for the property.
An argument for public ownership
When Walsh learns that Black Prairie’s WMA is “underutilized and mismanaged,” he doesn’t know what these people are talking about.
From a hunting perspective alone, 90 adults and 45 juveniles are raffled each year for deer hunting rights on the property, in addition to 20 archery days open to all. Beyond that, there’s the turkey hunt, the young dove hunt, and it’s “one of the best WMAs for rabbit hunting.”
There is even a tradition that is a bit out of the ordinary.
“It’s one of the only WMAs that has specific days for things like fox hunting,” Walsh said. “We can have a large group coming in to hunt foxes in the old-fashioned (style) racing dogs. It’s a big social gathering, and it’s a really big deal.
Not to mention bird watching, which the WMA is well known for, he said.
Walsh said a staff works year-round to manage the native prairie and maintain WMA’s aesthetic. Part of the property is leased for row farming.
“We maintain that the WMA is well maintained and very well used by the public,” he said.
Conservation efforts help wildlife, while promoting air and water quality for human use. Plus, Walsh said, it’s an economic driver through tourism.
“There are people coming from all over the state,” he said. “These people buy gas, eat out and can stay in hotels when they hunt here.”
Harris worries that her fellow birdwatchers, for their part, haven’t done enough to make their presence known. They are not diligent enough to document their visits to the WMA, either by filling out the visitor information card at the entrance gate or by marking their trip on e-birder, an online database for the birdwatching run by Cornell University.
“If the perception is that (Black Prairie) is underutilized, it’s our fault,” Harris said.
A greater principle of stewardship
For Younger, the problem of public lands goes deeper than Black Prairie. This reflects poor management of all state parks and wildlife areas, as well as his belief that the state owns too much property.
“The state owns 2 million acres of public land and (MDWFP) hasn’t done a good job of maintaining it,” Younger said.
Fisher agreed and offered Lowndes Lake State Park in New Hope as an example.
“More people use Lowndes Lake State Park than Black Prairie, but people who use (Lowndes Lake) are disappointed with the state it is in,” he said. “We have a very nice park that is decaying because it’s not properly staffed.”
Younger thinks the MDWFP should focus more resources on taking care of what it has, rather than expanding its holdings.
Despite what emerged from Monday’s hearing, he said he was unlikely to sponsor legislation to sell Black Prairie. Even if he did, he said it probably wouldn’t pass because it would be difficult to convince other lawmakers to sell public land.
“But it has to get the public’s attention because maybe they (MDWFP) will do better,” he said. “…Keep the parks you have. Keep the WMAs you have. But don’t buy any more damn land.
Zack Plair is the editor of The Dispatch.