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Powdermill reserve summer program teaches wildlife conservation

| Wednesday, July 30, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Austin Bachand | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Luke Rosenberry of Cumberland (right) looks through binoculars and Luke Benzinger of North Huntington makes notes in his field journal during The Pennsylvania Institute for Conservation Education’s Wildlife Leadership Academy. The 5-day program focused on the ruffed grouse.
Austin Bachand | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Mike Watson holds his 5-year-old English Pointer dog, Skyy, while giving a demonstration on the dogs to the Wildlife Leadership Academy students just outside Powdermill Nature Reserve. The Academy is sponsored by The Pennsylvania Institute for Conservation Education.
Austin Bachand | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Vanessa Blanchard of Altoona takes a picture while studying at The Pennsylvania Institute for Conservation Education’s Wildlife Leadership Academy held at Powdermill Nature Reserve on Friday. The students were learning about the activities associated with being a good field-naturalist. , July 25, 2014

Morgan Calahan, 17, of Beaver County aspires to be a scientific illustrator.

“Anytime I talk to other people, they're like, ‘Oh no, computers are the thing now. You won't get a job,'” she said.

Calahan learned otherwise from wildlife professionals at Powdermill Nature Reserve last week.

The Wildlife Leadership Academy, a program created by the Pennsylvania Institute for Conservation Education, held a ruffed grouse-focused field school at Powdermill Nature Reserve, during which conservation experts taught 17 teenagers and four adult teachers about the state bird as well as ecology, biology and habitat management.

“I really learned a lot about the career I want to pursue,” Calahan said.

“Here you get a really hands-on experience with different professionals,” she said.

The Pennsylvania Institute for Conservation is a nonprofit organization that aims to “engage people across the state with the outdoors,” said director Michele Kittell. Its main program is the Wildlife Leadership Academy, which encourages youth to “become ambassadors for wildlife conservation in order to sustain wildlife legacy for future generations.”

Through the academy, Kittell said students attend one of three field schools, which are focused on the ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer and brook trout and coldwater conservation. After field school, they are challenged to complete outreach activities in education, community service, media engagement or the creative arts using the knowledge they gained.

The program provides students exposure to the career possibilities in wildlife and conservation because experts teach the curriculum, Kittell said. Over the years, the program has recruited students from 52 counties in the state.

“As adults we're making an investment in the next generation of youth who will be taking care of our environment,” Kittell said.

“I've had so many kids tell me it's a life-changing experience for them,” she said. “They leave here being a different person.”

Meeting students with similar outdoors interests is beneficial, as well as interacting with the adult mentors at the field school.

“That kind of development of social skills, self-esteem and confidence is probably not something they expect,” Kittell said.

At Powdermill Nature Reserve, students learned all about the ruffed grouse, from what they eat and where they live to their respiratory system and behavior.

Larry Long, who is the senior environmental educator at Powdermill Nature Reserve, gave a “Plant of the Day” presentation throughout the week, discussing plants that are beneficial to the ruffed grouse. On Thursday, his presentation included service berries, partridge berries and honeysuckle.

Long said he enjoyed teaching students why the plants are valuable and their natural history.

Linda Ordiway, a regional biologist from the Ruffed Grouse Society, presented a slide show about aging and sexing ruffed grouse, explaining to students what physical features to look for on a bird to determine such characteristics. She said it is important to make students aware of the issues surrounding ruffed grouse.

“We need to keep them around,” she said.

After the lecture, the group went outside to examine different sections of the nature reserve to determine how well they would serve as habitats for the ruffed grouse.

Claire Orner, a steward of sustainability at the Quiet Creek Herb Farm and School of Country Living in Jefferson County, attended the field school with her son as a team leader. She and her team of students determined their section of the nature reserve would provide adequate food and shelter.

“It fits right into the curriculum I teach,” she said of the field school.

Orner most enjoyed the bird banding demonstration at Powdermill Nature Reserve's station.

“It was true scientific research and data collection,” she said.

Some students are invited to come back to the field schools as “assistant team leaders,” Kittell said.

Alec Baker, 17, of Clarion attended the white-tail deer-focused field school last year.

“I really enjoyed it and it really inspired me and my path to become a wildlife biologist,” Baker said.

He returned for the ruffed grouse field school. He was pleased to learn about determining a ruffed grouse's gender “just by looking at them,” as he has spotted them before during walks in the woods.

Additionally, Baker enjoyed meeting professionals that work in the field he hopes to enter one day. He had a “blast” at Powdermill Nature Reserve.

“If you're interested in pursuing a career in conservation - it's such a competitive field as it is, and this gives you such a head start because you get to make contacts with people that have been through it,” he said.

Kittell said the ruffed grouse field school has been held at Powdermill Nature Reserve for several years. Director John Wenzel said the eserve's partnership with the Pennsylvania Institute for Conservation Education is “really ideal.”

“It's part of our mission to provide an attractive and educational platform for these programs,” he said.

For more information about the Wildlife Leadership Academy, visit

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or

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