Ashlee Ellis Smith was recently named executive director of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation. Smith, a native of Nashville, is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis School of Law. She and her husband Brad have four children. Smith joins the federation after serving as director of policy for Ducks Unlimited and after running Ellis Smith Policy Solutions, a governmental affairs group. She recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the federation and her plans as director.
Why did you want this job?
“The federation came on my radar around the time of the (Mississippi Wildlife) Extravaganza. I got a call when I was on the Ducks Unlimited board and was told there was a problem with the extravaganza, and they were trying to decide what to do. The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP) Commission had an emergency vote to withdraw from the extravaganza and withdraw support from the federation. I heard it was because the federation didn’t support the (Yazoo) pumps. I talked to the federation and they said they had a change of leadership in the board and the staff, and they were looking for someone to take them in a new direction. For me, it was about being involved with a historic organization that has done such tremendous work in conservation, wildlife and sportsmen’s issues, but had been under attack. A lot of misinformation had been disseminated out there and I wanted to step in and help.”
What is the federation’s stance on the Yazoo Pumps?
“Obviously, this was a historic year for flooding in Mississippi. The federation put out a statement in July, prior to the extravaganza. The nuts and bolts said that the federation knows there is new information and science that needed to be studied, because so much time had passed since the EPA vetoed the pumps. The federation wanted to study the flooding on a comprehensive level, from the standpoint of the entire Mississippi River Basin, and that pumps may be part of a solution.”
“That was put out in July. Fast forward to the extravaganza. A week before it happened, a lady named Victoria Darden applied for a booth. She said she was a photographer from New Orleans, but in reality she was a homeowner who was affected by the flooding and a proponent of the pumps. A week before the event, there was a long list of vendors trying to get in. Because of who she was, the federation recognized the issue and the optics, and told her we were full and had a waiting list for spaces, but we would try to find her room. The federation was ultimately able to find the pro-pumpers a spot. (Mississippi Ag Farm Equipment Company had agreed to share their booth space.)
“However, (Darden) stopped answering her phone calls and a social media campaign was rolled out against the federation. The governor started tweeting, and some pro-pumpers told vendors that ‘if you show up at the extravaganza, we’ll put you out of business.’ There was no executive director at the time and we didn’t have a PR firm, so trying to respond to the (campaign) was difficult. These forces were detrimental to the extravaganza.”
All that being said, how do you rebuild the federation’s relationship with MDWFP and the state?
“When I came on board, I met with MDWFP and said that from the beginning, one of our goals was to salvage the relationship, because we need each other. Now, the agency is refusing to go forward on (providing funding) for several of our youth events, including the Youth Outdoorama at the (Ross Barnett) Reservoir. They have directed us to cancel it. They said they would not participate in the Catfish and Kids, the youth squirrel hunts or any program that they have helped us on in the past. The MDWFP Foundation has backed out of the promise to help fund our Hunters’ Harvest program for the next three years.”
What is Hunters’ Harvest?
“We pay processors 80 cents on the dollar to process meat brought in by hunters, which is then donated to charities, food banks and hungry people across the state. At the end of the day, the federation is not being punished, but the youth who participate in our programs and the people who are the recipients of our hunters’ harvest program.”
So, the federation is not against the pumps or supporters of the pumps?
“We are not against the pro-pumpers; we are not their enemy. I don’t know how we can be clearer, than to say that pumps may be part of a solution. What I want to do is not to focus on the pumps, but to focus on the things that affect all Mississippians, such as fighting chronic wasting diseases, fighting the spread of Asian carp, which have infiltrated many streams, work on coastal restoration, and I want to focus on youth and education programs that have been so successful in the past. I want to steer away from regulatory
See Ashlee Ellis Smith, Page 14A
That being said, what is the federation’s stance on the One Lake Plan and the results of the biological opinion handed down by U.S. Fish and Wildlife recently?
“Obviously, the opinion is good news. I don’t think it resolves all of the tissues. One Lake is not something we are currently focusing on. we will continue to study and monitor the issue, but at the moment, our focus is on … conservation and sportsmen’s issues.”
That’s an interesting answer, considering the federation has been opposed to One Lake in the past.
“It’s more of a change in focus. There are more information issues at hand that are facing the state right now.”
What is the federation’s budget, and what percentage of it came from MDWFP?
“Our budget is based on donations and the success of the extravaganza, which has taken a big hit. We’re trying to put together a budget for 2020, and are trying to make up the difference, with the hit from the extravaganza and with MDWFP pulling funds.”
With a new governor coming in, do you think the federation will have a better chance of mending fences with the state and wildlife, fisheries and parks?
“I look forward to working with Gov. Tate Reeves’ administration. I have friends who work on his staff and between him, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Speaker Phillip Gunn, I think we can mend fences.”
As far as issues like Chronic Wasting Disease go, how can the federation address them?
“For the CWD standpoint, the only way is to study and educate ourselves, practice good management and give hunters the tools they need to prevent the disease. One contributing factor seems to be the over-dense population of deer. Thinning the population is one manner of controlling the spread, and really our best tool.”
What’s the deal with Asian carp?
“They’re so dangerous. Once they infiltrate a lake or stream, they eat everything – all of the food sources that other fish rely on. They’re sensitive to movement. When boats are running in the water, they will jump in the boat and hit you. People have gotten concussions.”
Are they in the reservoir or the Pearl River?
“I don’t think they’re in the reservoir. They are at Pickwick.”
How do they taste? And how are they being controlled?
“They are good. They’re a good fish to eat. Now, at least in the Mississippi River, we’re working toward management and control, rather than eradication. One way is incentivizing commercial fishing of Asian carp. They can be turned into lobster bate, fish sticks for school lunches, etc.”
Will you be having the extravaganza next year?
“At this point, we are planning on having the 2020 extravaganza. We’re tentatively planning the last weekend in July, in Rankin County. It’s been held on the same weekend for 33 years, but now that the fair commission has pulled us off the calendar and given our lease date to MDWFP (having it at its traditional location) is no longer an option.”