Certain Mississippi plants and animals have been designated as endangered either by the state or by both the state and US governments. Under Mississippi law, such species are protected from hunting and illegal possession, while listing by federal authorities results into additional restrictions aimed at protecting the species and its habitat. As defined by the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, endangered species are those currently in danger of becoming extinct, while threatened species consist of those likely to become endangered in the near future. Under state law, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks is responsible for managing endangered species populations.
Extinction occurs when the last surviving individual of a species dies. A species will become extinct when its rate of death continually exceeds its rate of birth. Extinctions are a natural part of the evolutionary process, and innumerable species of plants and animals have evolved and eventually become extinct since the earth came into existence. The rate of extinctions, however, has increased alarmingly during recent centuries because of human activities. The extinction of a species is typically a two-stage process. First, something (for example, habitat alteration or hunting) leads to a situation in which only a small population remains. As the number of organisms subsequently decreases below the “minimum viable population,” the species quickly becomes extinct. Species with narrow habitat requirements are characteristically subject to higher threats of extinction.
Species that have vanished from Mississippi in the past few hundred years include the red wolf, Florida panther (cougar), American bison (buffalo), Carolina parakeet, and passenger pigeon. Current endangered Mississippi animals and plants are at risk for a variety of reasons. In many cases, the habitats crucial for the species’ survival have been modified or completely destroyed. The amount of Mississippi covered by original landscapes has been greatly reduced, and the remaining pristine areas are increasingly influenced by various human activities. Some species have disappeared or become endangered because of overexploitation: the state’s Gulf sturgeon populations were wiped out by early twentieth-century fishing, while some birds and mammals, including the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, black bear, and cougar, were hunted relentlessly.
As a by-product of industrialization and mechanized agriculture, Mississippi’s land, water, and air have reached unprecedented levels of pollution during the last century. The use of pesticides and herbicides expanded enormously, and Mississippi’s wildlife often became unintended victims of human chemical ingenuity. For example, the siltation and chemical pollution caused by modern agricultural and forestry practices have severely affected many of Mississippi’s streams and led to population declines among many native fish and mussels. The decline of many bird species coincided with the introduction of chlorinated pesticides, especially the notorious DDT in 1947. Animals at the top of the food chain, such as the bald eagle and brown pelican, ingested high levels of the pesticide, which had contaminated their food sources. Adult mortalities increased, but the principal effect was damage to the species’ ability to reproduce, as birds affected by DDT failed to lay eggs or produced thin eggshells that broke during incubation.
The environmental effects of European colonization have been magnified by deliberate and accidental introduction of various Eurasian and African life forms. Euro-American settlers brought numerous new species to Mississippi, and many of them became competitors of, predators of, or parasites on the original flora and fauna, often with devastating effects on the indigenous wildlife. The long list of such alien species includes organisms as dissimilar as hogs, cats, dogs, rats, fire ants, and kudzu. The early explorers and settlers also brought with them Old World diseases that often proved lethal for Native Americans as well as for the indigenous flora and fauna. Increasing suburbanization and recreational pressures on Mississippi’s remaining prime wildlife habitats have recently created yet another unnatural proliferation of predators. For example, suburban development has resulted in an increased number of rats, skunks, raccoons, opossums, blue jays, and cowbirds, all of which adversely affect the original woodland species remaining in the altered habitat.
As famous conservationist Aldo Leopold noted in 1929, Mississippi was among the last states to realize the need to protect wildlife: the first state agency with such responsibilities, the Game and Fish Commission, was not established until 1932. Since the 1930s some species that were almost eliminated from Mississippi have rebounded because of conservation efforts by state and federal authorities and volunteer organizations. Wild turkeys and white-tailed deer, for example, today sustain healthy and harvestable populations as a consequence of successful reintroduction and conservation programs. The American alligator and brown pelican, too, have experienced significant population increases since conservation efforts began in the 1960s. In recent years, black bear sightings in the state have also been on the rise, but the return of the panther to Mississippi has yet to be validated.
The need to protect Mississippi’s endangered species can be justified by various arguments. Many of the species are beautiful or immensely interesting in their own right. It has also been argued that all species have the same right to exist as humans do and that all species are intrinsically worth preserving. In addition, endangered species form an integral part of the state’s biological diversity, and their disappearance could have unanticipated negative effects on Mississippi’s human inhabitants.
- Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, Endangered Species of Mississippi (1995)
- Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks website, www.mdwfp.com