If Jeff Harris ever needs a pickup line, he might go with, “Let me tell you about the birds and the bees.”
The honeybee specialist for the Mississippi State University Extension Service is also a hobbyist birdwatcher and president of the Oktibbeha County Audubon Society. One of his favorite pursuits is spotting painted buntings at the Black Prairie Wildlife Management Area off Fire Tower Road near Crawford.
“The males, especially, are so pretty, almost gaudy,” Harris said of the colorful bird. “They are fairly rare as nesters in this area because this is considered to be on the edge of their range. But they nest there.”
Neither the painted bunting nor one of Harris’ other favorite birds, the lark sparrow, is technically endangered. Their local habitat, however, is squarely in the crosshairs of county lawmakers and at least one state legislator.
County supervisors have scheduled a public hearing at 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 the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks manages, so the county can’t autonomously act to take it out of public hands, County Administrator Jay Fisher said. It can, however, put its two cents in with the state.
“We don’t have any authority,” Fisher said. “This would just be the board deciding whether to advocate for any legislation to put it back 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 Russ Walsh, wildlife bureau chief for MDWFP. It facilitates public hunting and fishing, among other outdoor recreation, and is “some of the last intact native prairie” left in the state, he said.
State Sen. Chuck Younger (R, Lowndes County), who sits on the Senate Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Committee, believes the WMA is underutilized and poorly managed. When he approached supervisors with his feelings, he found a receptive audience for trying to get the property back on the tax rolls.
“From the county’s perspective, it’s lost revenue,” Fisher said.
Younger was more specific, claiming the county is losing $33,000 annually in property taxes alone while the WMA land is publicly owned.
“There’s a lot of good things about it, but there are a lot of damn negative things about it, too,” Younger said. “There’s a $350,000 house and two buildings that are just sitting out there empty. Those should at least be rented out. … There’s not a lot of people hunting out there, and (MDWFP) just let a lot of (the land) grow up in thickets.
“It’s just a lot of waste,” 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 favors converting it back to private ownership, but he is going into Monday’s hearing with an open mind.
“I’m interested in hearing from people who want to keep it like it is,” he told The Dispatch.
If emails are any indicator, Fisher said there were plenty of those.
The county published a notice of the public hearing last week in The Dispatch and is welcoming written public feedback on the matter through noon Friday. So far, Fisher said, his office has received more than 700 responses, the overwhelming majority of which from people who want to see the property remain public.
“Some public land advocacy groups (around the state) got hold of that ad, so I have no idea how many of those people actually live in Lowndes County,” Fisher said. “Comments from people who want it to become private again aren’t quite as numerous, but we’ve gotten some feedback from that direction as well.”
Fisher, Smith and Younger all said they “aren’t aware of any” prospective buyers for the property as of yet.
An argument for public ownership
When Walsh hears the Black Prairie WMA is “underutilized and mismanaged,” he’s not sure what those people are talking about.
From just a hunting standpoint, 90 adults and 45 youth are drawn from a lottery each year for deer hunting rights on the property, in addition to 20 archery hunting days open to anyone. Beyond that, there’s turkey hunting, youth dove hunting and it’s “one of the better WMAs for rabbit hunting.”
There’s even one tradition there that is a bit out of the ordinary.
“That’s one of the only WMAs that has specific days for things like fox hunts,” Walsh said. “We may have a big group that comes and hunts foxes in the old (style) running dogs. It’s a big social gathering, and it’s a really big deal.”
That’s to say nothing of birdwatching, for which the WMA is well known, he said.
Walsh said a staff works year-round to manage the native prairie and maintain the aesthetics of WMA. Some of the property is leased for row crop farming.
“We maintain the WMA is well maintained and very well used by the public,” he said.
Conservation efforts help wildlife, while also promoting clean air and water for human use. Plus, Walsh said, it’s an economic driver through tourism.
“There are people coming in from all over the state,” he said. “Those people buy gas, eat at restaurants and they might stay in a hotel when they are here hunting.”
Harris is concerned his fellow birders, for their part, haven’t done enough to make their presence known. They aren’t diligent enough in documenting their visits to the WMA, either by filling out the visitor information card at the front gate or marking their trip on e-birder, an online database for 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 public land issue runs deeper than Black Prairie. It reflects poor stewardship of all state parks and wildlife areas, as well as his belief that the state owns too much property.
“The state has 2 million acres of public land, and (MDWFP) has not done a good job maintaining it,” Younger said.
Fisher agreed and offered Lake Lowndes State Park in New Hope as an example.
“More people use Lake Lowndes State Park than Black Prairie, but the people who use (Lake Lowndes) are disappointed in the condition it’s in,” he said. “We have a really nice park that’s in decay because it’s not being resourced properly.”
Younger believes MDWFP should concentrate more resources on taking better care of what it has, rather than expanding its holdings.
Despite what comes from Monday’s hearing, he said it’s unlikely he will sponsor legislation to sell Black Prairie. Even if he did, he said it probably wouldn’t pass because it would be hard to convince other legislators to sell any public land.
“But it needs to come to 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 managing editor for The Dispatch.