|By John Howell Sr.
A decision in 2004 to purchase satellite radios for the conservation officers of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks proved to have been prescient during their response to the Gulf Coast in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Conservation officers, with electronic conversations not shackled by downed antennas, could talk to each other.
Not only could they talk to each other, they could act as dispatchers for other agencies providing emergency relief, Conservation Officer Marion Pearson said Tuesday.
Pearson’s comments about the radios came almost as an afterthought Tuesday when he spoke to the Batesville Rotary Club. As part of the Department of Public Safety, conservation officers of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks were in the state’s initial emergency response to the coast. When he spoke Tuesday, he was only about a week removed from the emergency duties he and so many more were summoned to the coast to perform.
Rubert Morgan had chosen Pearson as speaker for the October 11 meeting, and since Morgan is an avid outdoorsman, it’s a safe assumption that he invited Pearson to speak about hunting seasons, current and pending.
Which he did.
Pearson said that turkey, quail and rabbit populations have flourished in the state partially due to epidemics of distemper in coons, skunks and coyotes. "We’ve been real fortunate to have had it three years in a row," Pearson said of the distemper outbreak in predators. The decimation of the predator population has allowed populations of game to increase to the point of surviving a resurgence of predators, he said.
But like all hurricane survivors and those who have visited those devastated areas in its immediate aftermath, Pearson had a story that he just had to tell, and his presentation became a dichotomy between changes in the 2005 hunting laws and response to the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
The state’s emergency response had been planned after Hurricane Ivan in 2004. This time, preparation and advance planning had placed personnel from the Mississippi Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety in staging areas at Hattiesburg and Pearl with equipment ranging from front-end loaders to chain saws and four-wheelers, Public Safety Commissioner George Phillips stated. The first contingent left Hattiesburg at 3:30 p.m. Monday afternoon, August 29, clearing a path through downed trees and debris. They arrived on the coast almost eight hours later.
Their initial work was search and rescue, Pearson said. For the first week and most of the second, Pearson and the other state employees went house to house, looking for survivors in the rubble. They used boats on the rain-swollen streams, rescuing people from houses and from newly-created islands amidst the debris.
"As it has progressed, we moved more into a law enforcement capacity," Pearson said, continuing the post-hurricane saga. Officers manned roadblocks, guarded a FEMA check distribution site and a police fueling site.
"We had total communications with the new satellite radios we have in our vehicles," Pearson said. They dispersed the conservation officers in their vehicles to every staging location.
Hunting regulation changes
A change in the hunting regulations has changed the description of a primitive weapon to include replicas of pre-1900 rifles that use a brass cartridge. The weapon must be .38 caliber or larger and must have an exposed hammer, Pearson said. He also advised hunters who utilize the primitive weapon season to check regulations closely to make sure their gun complies.
Crossbows may now be used for hunting. Formerly only people with disabilities that prevented them from pulling back a long bow or compound bow were allowed to use crossbows, the conservation officer said. A crossbow permit which can be purchased for $15 will now allow any hunter to use replicas of the pre-gunpowder weapon. Crossbows may be used during gun season and primitive weapon season but are prohibited during archery season, he added.
There may be 20 to 25 black bears in Mississippi at any given time, Pearson said, responding to a question. Those found on the east side of the Mississippi River are usually young males chased out of the Arkansas territory claimed by an older male. Those bears that find their way as far east as U.S. Highway 61 usually end up as road kill, he added.
Which is why Pearson doubts that there are any panthers still to be found in the state. No road kill evidence, he said.
What percentage of the state’s deer population is killed each year?
"Not near enough," Pearson responded. "The population just about eats itself out of house and home before greenup each year." The conservation officer said that he hopes that a tele-check method could be implemented for reporting deer kills. Hunters could easily call in their reports and give conservationists a more accurate count of hunting results.
The sale of hunting licenses is down $1 million this year, Pearson said. Hurricane-displaced hunters are distracted with other priorities.
Mississippi’s first alligator hunting season did not yield as many of the reptiles as conservation officials had hoped, and the need for a hunting season will continue, Pearson said. One eleven-foot gator was caught. Conservation officers often respond to calls about nuisance gators. Officers attempt to relocate those six feet and under. Those over six feet are "dispatched," he said.
All users of state wildlife management areas can expect to pay an annual fee for use of the land starting this year, Pearson said. The money will be earmarked in a special fund to be used only for maintenance of the areas, Pearson said.
One reason for converting conservation officers’ vehicle radios to satellite technology was for more complete coverage in remote areas of the state. Officers frequently encountered "dead spots" where reception and transmission was inconsistent due to terrain and distance from conventional antennas. Their potential for communicating during a disaster was also mentioned then, but mostly as an added value.
Who could have foretold how valuable they would be in the late summer of 2005?