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National Wildlife Competition Exposes 4-H Members to Desert

LAS CRUCES - With their sleeves rolled up and their hats pulled down, 80 teen 4-H members from across the nation sprawled in the dirt 25 miles north of Las Cruces, seeking shade for themselves and habitat for desert cottontails and black-throated sparrows.



From left, Eli Miller, Phil Felty, Chaun Frend and Tom Cayia of Indiana write a rural wildlife management plan at the Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center July 24 as part of the National 4-H Wildlife Habitat Evaluation Program Invitational. This was the first year that New Mexico hosted the competition featuring wildlife food identification and aerial photography. (07/31/2003) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Audry Olmsted)

Many of the competitors had never visited the desert before taking part in the national Wildlife Habitat Evaluation Program hosted by New Mexico State University July 22-26.

Despite the impending heat, participants were enthusiastic about getting a close up look at the 60-acre site at NMSU's Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center.

"It's not as humid, but it's rather hot," said Casey Richards, 15, of Maryland, one of 20 states represented.

"It's pretty neat competing with people from all over the country," said Brandon Boger,
17, of Texas.

The daylong competition had segments on wildlife food, aerial photography, oral reasoning, and rural and urban wildlife management plans. 4-H members also took educational tours of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Jornada Experimental Range north of Las Cruces.

"It teaches them not only important things about wildlife habitat management, but it also, which is important in New Mexico, teaches them to integrate other land uses, including agriculture," said Jon Boren, organizer and wildlife specialist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service.

In the morning competition, students rated field conditions for a half-dozen species based on the terrain and vegetation. Then they broke into groups and wrote management plans based on a scenario for the location.

That afternoon, they moved to campus to write an urban wildlife management plan. They identified food for birds and mammals, such as twigs and seeds. The students also studied aerial photographs and ranked habitat quality of circled regions from best to worst.

Alabama 4-H members Traci Beams, Amy Farnsworth, Kate Greene and Lisa Shaw won the team contest. Beams, Shaw and Farnsworth were high-point individuals. Team rankings were based more on feasible management plans than points alone. The Virginia team of Lauren Freeman, Lauren Kope, Meredith Kope and Matthew Roberts was second. Georgia's Dane Beatenbough, Cody Disque, Philip Kaufman and Rebecca Miolen of placed third.

4-H'ers learn more than just wildlife management and earn more than plaques or medals, said wildlife specialist Charlie Lee of Kansas State University, chair of the National 4-H Wildlife Habitat Evaluation Program Committee.

"Our goal is really much broader than that, and that's to increase their education and their understanding of natural resources and the management of them, and realize that there are some concessions that must be made and realize that they have to make some adjustments in real-life situations," he said. "They learn teamwork, how to get along, skills that are important all the way through life."

Students are allowed to compete only once at the national level.

Although New Mexico teams have been involved in the contest since 1996, it was the first time for the state to host the national competition. Summer Eaton, an NMSU Extension program specialist who was the high-point individual in the 1996 competition, was co-chair of the state committee. Next year, the event will be held in Virginia.

"A lot of the folks who have gone through the national competition have gone on to pursue a degree in range and/or wildlife management," Boren said. "A lot have now become folks who work for different wildlife agencies throughout the U.S."