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Mississippi has nearly 300 'species of concern' and many of them are familiar


MCCOMB, Mississippi — Did you know Mississippi has nearly 300 "species of concern" — many of them familiar?

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks first came up with the list in 2005 "as a requirement by Congress for continued participation in the State Wildlife Grants Program, which has provided over $7 million dollars for fish and wildlife conservation in Mississippi since 2001," a news release said.

The state must revise the list every 10 years. The first revision is under way and is being coordinated by MDWFP's Museum of Natural Science in consultation with bureaus agency-wide.

First on the list are nearly 50 species of mussel. Native mussels have been declining for decades.

Mississippi waterways used to be loaded with fascinating mussels like the Mucket, Fatmucket, Plain Pocketbook, Alabama Heelsplitter and Mississippi Pigtoe. Nowadays about the only thing found is Asian clams, identifiable by their black, ridged shells.

Kathy Shelton, coordinator of the State Wildlife Action Plan, said mussels are an indicator of water quality.

"The Asian clams can survive in water that's not as pure as our native mussels can, and they're able to out-compete our natural species," she said. "In the past 20 years it's become a huge issue."

So what difference does it make if some obscure species is declining?

"I get that question all the time," she said. "I'm normally a bat biologist and a turtle biologist. My answer is you have to care about it all because it's all interconnected. The mussels are producing food for something else, and that something else may be food for you — if you need a human excuse to care."

Next on the list were crustaceans — to be specific, 34 species of crayfish.?That was followed by one arachnid and 10 insects.

Then came fish — 72 species.

While there are an abundance of little fellers like darters, shiners and minnows, there were also larger species like paddlefish, alligator gar, rock bass and walleye.

The list of 36 reptiles also contained familiar names — alligator snapping turtle, loggerhead sea turtle, Eastern indigo snake, rainbow snake, Southern hognose snake, various king snakes (not the common speckled one), Eastern coachwhip, black pine snake, Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and Eastern coral snake.

Alligator snapping turtles are locally called loggerheads.?Fishermen catch them on trotlines.

"Alligator snapping turtle is a big concern," Shelton said. "They're so heavily harvested. We've even changed the state regulations on how many you can take."

Some states want to list the turtles as an endangered species.

"The declines are so marked, and the majority of that is from harvesting," Shelton said.

As for snakes, diamondback rattlers and coral snakes (both poisonous) are familiar.

Coral snakes are so shy it would be hard for an average person to know whether they're declining or not. But rattlesnakes?

"As soon as people hear that, they're like, 'Oh, my Lord, they're everywhere,'" Shelton said of rattlers. "That's another one that you don't realize how much decline there is."

Which brings us to birds; 70 species of them.

Swallow-tailed kite is on the list, yet lately there have been several reports of them in southwest Mississippi, and this isn't even their range. The large, graceful birds with forked tails live in southeast Mississippi and farther east.

In recent weeks, Warren Adams of Smithdale and David Varnado of the Topisaw Creek area have reported them.?

Adams, a logger, saw one four miles west of Gloster off Bluff Springs Road. Varnado watches them at his property.

"They have been at our house all summer,"?Varnado said. "They must be nesting. I see them every day."

Shelton said the kites' range appears to be expanding and said they've even been sighted in the Jackson area. She hopes that's because statewide habitat is improving, rather than problems in their native range forcing the birds to seek new territory.

Regardless, Shelton said the kites, like many other species, are a "region-wide concern" experiencing long-term decline.

"We know from long-term data that their numbers have declined," she said. "It may not be to the point that you would notice it, but range-wide it's a decline. If we don't start doing something now, it's going to end up on the endangered species list."

Other birds listed include waterfowl like Northern pintail, mottled duck, American black duck, lesser scaup, anhinga, brown pelican, snowy egret, white ibis, yellow rail, black rail, purple gallinule and king rail.

"A lot of the issues with these populations are on their breeding grounds, and they winter down here. Of course, we want to keep those areas pristine for them to winter," she said, citing the 2010 Gulf oil spill as an example of threats to habitat.

The list also has birds like osprey, American woodcock, barn owl, chuck-will's-widow, red-headed woodpecker, wood thrush, painted bunting and scarlet tanager.

The bald eagle was a surprise. There are so many reports of sightings in southwest Mississippi these days that they're no longer really news.

"That's one of our success stories," Shelton said. "It's been delisted (as an endangered species).?We don't want to completely discount it any more. We want to keep that monitoring going on. It's certainly not one of the high priorities anymore."

And finally, mammals — 18 species.

Some you'd expect to see, like the Florida panther. Also black bear and Louisiana black bear, even though bear sightings have been on the rise statewide for the past several years.

The Eastern spotted skunk is there, too. Mississippi seems to have plenty of skunks around here, but most of them are the striped variety.

The long-tailed weasel is listed, another shy species. And there's the upland fox squirrel, a subspecies of fox squirrel.

The presence of familiar animals on the list shouldn't be a surprise, Shelton said,

"Technically, you could pick all but the most common species, like raccoons or possums, and put on there," she said.

The idea behind the list is to focus on creatures too numerous to make the endangered species list but that are nevertheless having problems. Get agencies and researchers on the same page, and pool funding.

"Make sure 20 to 50 years from now we have the right habitat," Shelton said.

Online: Species of concern,

Information from: Enterprise-Journal,

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