Protecting Mississippi’s Fish, Wildlife and Habitats through Conservation and Education
By Angela Rogalski & Photography by Greg Campbell and courtesy of Sam Polles
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks is a state agency charged with the responsibility of conserving Mississippi’ s abundant natural resources and providing quality outdoor recreational opportunities for the sporting public. In addition, the agency also provides extensive educational programs throughout the State, as well as a wide range of law enforcement functions to ensure compliance and public safety. Dr. Sam G. Polles is Executive Director of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. He and his wife, Mary Margaret Humber Polles, have been married for 48 years
and have three sons—Trip, Jim and John—and six grandsons: Carter, John David, Sam, Jack, John and John Carter. Both Dr. Polles and his wife are natives of Clarksdale, Mississippi. They are quick to share fond memories of their Delta childhoods and the uniqueness of the Delta way of life. “ If you have love for the land and the Mississippi River, or agriculture in general,” he says, “ the Mississippi Delta is the place to be. People who grew up there really appreciate its wonders. Just the land itself is amazing. When you come out of the hill country and approach the Delta and reach that flatland, it’ s a thrill almost like coming down on a rollercoaster. My family and I love the Delta.” The Polles family owned and operated a family business in Clarksdale for three generations. “ My family was in the restaurant business for 60 years,” Polles says. “ I grew up learning how to operate a cash register, wait tables and prepare some meals, all by the age of ten. All of this, of course, was before you had computerized cash registers, so I had to learn to transact the sale and make correct change the old-fashioned way.” After graduating from Clarksdale High School, Polles attended Mississippi State his freshman year. However, it became necessary that he return to Clarksdale when his father became ill, to help with the family business. With a strong desire to continue his education, he enrolled in nearby Delta State University. “ I would drive to Delta State, attend classes, and then come home in the evenings to help my mother and grandparents with the restaurant,” he says. “ So my first year at DSU, I commuted to school and continued to work in Clarksdale. Needless to say, this was a very difficult time for me and my family.” Thankfully, his father recovered his health, and Polles continued his education at Delta State in pre-med/pre-dental. “ My father didn’ t really want me to go into the restaurant business, because he said it was a lot of hard work and long hours,” he says. “ He encouraged me to continue my education, so after graduating from Delta State, I enrolled in graduate school at Mississippi State University, where I received my master’ s and doctorate degrees.” Polles says that after college he anticipated going to Princeton, New Jersey, where he would conduct research at a facility there, but as fate would have it, in 1970 he accepted a position with the University of Georgia. “ The extension and research facility for the university was at their Tifton campus, where we enjoyed seven wonderful years. This was a special time because my wife’ s family was originally from that area, and we were able to become reacquainted with relatives that we may not have otherwise. Although we enjoyed our time in Georgia, we always wanted to return home to Mississippi,” he explains. When an opportunity presented itself to come back to Mississippi with the U.S. Department of Agriculture at Stoneville, the couple took advantage of it. “ I stayedthere for three years,” Polles says. “ Then the owner of Bass Pecan Company, a multi-million dollar corporation, which includes oil and gas holdings, orchards and nursery operations and Long Leaf Plantation, which is a hunting preserve and a corporate retreat outside of Hattiesburg, made me an attractive offer to manage these multi-level businesses.” Polles says he went there as a general manager and ended up joining two of the owner’ s family members in buying the company. He and his partners continued to operate the company for several years before selling the business. After spending a few years self-employed and working as a consultant primarily in Georgia, Polles was invited to interview for the executive director position at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks in 1992. “ I interviewed for the job with Governor Kirk Fordice and was offered the position,” he says. “ I thought it might be for three or four years, and so far, it’ s been almost 24, and I’ ve enjoyed every day of it.” Polles says, “ I have been fortunate to serve the people of Mississippi in this capacity. I say the ‘ people’ of Mississippi for a reason,” he adds, “ because whether they’ re hunters, anglers or outdoor enthusiasts or not, this agency directly or indirectly touches the lives of all Mississippians in some way. Sure, our primary mission is to provide quality outdoor recreational opportunities for both residents and visitors of Mississippi, but we are also heavily involved in research, education and public safety. For example, our Natural Science Museum conducts educational workshops for dozens of science teachers, and nature programs for over a hundred thousand schoolchildren, each year. Not only are these sessions held at the Museum in Jackson, but our Naturalist visits schools all across the state to teach kids about the natural sciences from a uniquely Mississippi perspective.” Polles says that the core enterprise of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation is also a multi-billion dollar industry that has an enormous economic impact throughout the state. “ Of course, this economic bang creates jobs and enhances the general fund at the state and local levels,” he adds. “ WMAs, state lakes and parks located all across Mississippi, bring visitors and tourists from throughout the country to those communities. They stay and shop and play in those communities and spend a great deal of money in the process. The staffs of our Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Bureaus work very hard, every day, to ensure that those visitors and tourists enjoy a quality experience so they’ ll come back. If we are successful—and we are most of the time—our efforts generate a continued source of income for the local economies, resulting in job creation.” Polles is also very appreciative and proud of the MDWFP’ s Law Enforcement component of the agency. “ Our Law Enforcement Bureau is second to none,” Polles says. “ We have some of the finest law enforcement professionals found anywhere. The officers of this bureau are much more than traditional game wardens; they are highly trained, equipped and motivated State Law Enforcement professionals with the statutory authority to enforce not only the conservation and natural resources laws, but general state and federal laws as well. They are among the State’ s first responders in times of state emergencies or natural disasters. And because of their unique training and equipment, they are often the ‘ first boots’ on the ground when Mississippians are in need of a state-level response in times of crisis. Regardless of whether it is a head lighter or fugitive from justice, hurricane, or tornado, whenever a law violator or natural disaster negatively affects Mississippians, they can always count on our officers to be there to assist.” Clay Wagner serves on the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Commission as Vice Chairman and as a commissioner from District 5. Wagner says that Dr. Sam Polles is about the nicest person he’ s ever met and has unbelievable managerial skills. “ He has been an absolute pleasure to work with,” Wagner says. “ And I think the Department has about 700 or 800 people. He is ultimately responsible for the management of all those individuals and their positions, and he does an absolutely amazing job. But I have found his real strength to be that he also understands the biology of the wildlife and the flora. It’ s very unique to have a director of the department who has both of those skill sets. He brings both of them to the table, and that’ s just very unique.” Bill Cossar, another commissioner from District 1, says that he has known Polles for over 30 years and there is no finer man or one more capable and proficient at his job. “ I’ ve known him for much longer than I’ ve been on the MDWFP commission,” Cossar says. “ Sam is a very competent and knowledgeable director. He’ s not a sit-around-let-someone-else-do-it man; he knows what’ s going on himself.” But Cossar says that even more than those things, one of the most notable things about Polles is his accessibility to people. “ He is accessible 24 hours per day, seven days a week,” Cossar says. “ I have never called him when he didn’t answer his phone. And to me, that means so much for someone in his position. We are extremely fortunate to have someone like him running the agency.” Bob Tyler is a retired football coach from Ole Miss and the University of Alabama and former head coach at Mississippi State. He also served as Polles’ director of state parks and, later, deputy director of the agency for many years. Tyler is now on contract with the Department and continues to consult with the agency, particularly in the area of outreach services. Tyler says the fact that Polles worked with several governors speaks volumes about the man himself: “ He’s a great director who believes strongly in the Department and in conservation.” Polles definitely believes in the department and in the future of conservation, which are two things always uppermost in his mind. “ Unfortunately, there are some alarming trends or mindsets in our society today that cause me some concern about the future of conservation,” he states. “ There appears to be a growing lack of appreciation for outdoor recreation, especially in consumptive areas. Nationally, we are losing hunters and anglers, as indicated by the continuous decline in license sales. Conservation agencies (including MDWFP) strive to do a better job in the areas of recruitment and retention. With that in mind, we have implemented several very successful programs designed to educate young Mississippians about natural resource conservation at the earliest possible age. Through our fishing rodeos, hunter education programs, and Archery in Schools program, along with the programs conducted by the Museum of Natural Science and the North Mississippi Fish Hatchery and Education Center, we expose thousands of young people to the wonders of conservation in hopes of sparking their interest for a lifetime.” Polles says in addition to those programs, the MDWFP plans to continue and strengthen its relationship with colleges and universities where the next generation of conservationists is being trained. “ We must continue to recruit the brightest minds to join the ranks of MDWFP in order to ensure that Mississippi retains its rightful place as a leader in conservation,” he says.