Wildlife camps fill niche for interested teens
Daniel Straka and his parents were prepared to do some traveling this summer.
The 16-year-old sophomore at Mt. Lebanon was looking to attend some kind of intensive wildlife or nature camp. Some online searching led to ones at various spots around the country, including the Adirondacks of New York.
He was readying to go there when he came across the Wildlife Leadership Academy, which offers two summer field schools — one centered around white-tailed deer; the other, held at Powdermill Nature Reserve in Rector, around ruffed grouse — right here in Pennsylvania.
Straka ended up attending the "Bucktails" deer camp, a weeklong event at which teens did everything from learn about habitat, the role of hunting in wildlife management and tree identification to take part in nature photography, radio telemetry and trap shooting.
"There are not enough words to express what I experienced," Straka said. "I wish the camp would have lasted all summer."
The camp was fun, but by no means easy, he said. Students spend up to 18 hours a day doing things like field research and preparing presentations on what they learned, he said.
It's all meant to achieve one goal, said Michelle Kittell, program coordinator for the Leadership Academy.
"Our mission is to create youth ambassadors for conservation. We give them knowledge about a specific species and tools like leadership and communication skills so that they can go back to their own communities and share what they learned," Kittell said.
One thing that makes the camps so good is the instructors, Kittell said. They're pulled from the top ranks of the wildlife field and include biologists and veterinarians from agencies like the Pennsylvania Game Commission and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and groups like the Ruffed Grouse Society and Quality Deer Management Association.
"I don't really think there's another opportunity like that anywhere else in the state," Kittell said.
"These people, I can't say enough about the adults who give back to these kids and let them know there's not only a place for them, but a career path," said Rene Straka, Daniel's mother. "There's all these camps for sports and other things, it's great to have something like this for these kids."
Students who learn from those adults commit to doing three community service or outreach programs when they go home.
Straka has been busy in that regard. He's already spoken to the members of the Greater Johnstown Sportsmen's Club and is scheduled to talk at Dormont-Mt. Lebanon Sportsmen's Club on Sept. 22. He's also contacted the environmental clubs at Mt. Lebanon's junior and senior high schools and some area libraries.
At each stop, he'll be sharing his message about the importance of conservation and the great role the Leadership Academy camps play in teaching it.
"I would highly recommend this camp to others," he said.
To learn more
The Wildlife Leadership Academy will offer three camps this year — one centered around deer, one around grouse and one around trout — on dates and at locations to be determined. Final details are expected to be announced within a month.
Students between the ages of 14 and 17 who hope to attend must fill out an application, write an essay and secure letters of recommendation. Tuition costs $500 for the week.
The Leadership Academy also is looking for adult leaders — teachers can get Act 48 continuing education credits — to help with each camp and for individual and corporate sponsors to help with tuition scholarships.