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Westview Repeats as County 4-H/FFA Wildlife Habitat Champion

Westview successfully defended its title as sunny skies and seasonal temperatures marked the ninth annual LaGrange County 4-H/FFA Wildlife Habitat Evaluation competition last Tuesday at Dallas Lake Park. Forty-eight youth from the three county high schools participated in this year’s event. It was the fifth consecutive county title for the Warriors.

With four of the five highest individual scorers, Coach Paul Baker’s Warriors also had two other teams in the county’s top five. Individual champion Kyle Gage led the Warriors followed by Damon Hershberger, Jessica Castle and Jonell Bender. A Lakeland team under Coach Katie Allen finished second and was led by Austin Nelson. Coach Ron Noll’s Prairie Heights Panthers finished third and was topped in scoring by Marissa Richardson. All three county teams have been highly successful in statewide wildlife habitat education events. Westview and Prairie Heights are recent Indiana state champions with the Panthers capturing the state crown in 2010.

The contest consists of four components, a field management plan in which students identify practices that optimize the habitat for a specific animal, a wildlife challenge component which tests the students’ overall wildlife challenge, a photo identification of specific animals, and a foods identification exercise that matches animals and their preferred food sources.

The county wildlife habitat program takes into account the shrinking number of youth and families associated with production agriculture and has been a popular supplement to traditional livestock and dairy judging events. It is also intended to stimulate interest in natural sciences such as ecology, zoology, biology, and veterinary science. The comparatively mediocre performance of American youth on standardized science tests is well documented and it is believed this type of field experience may motivate some youth to investigate these disciplines for future career options.

Indiana Farm Bureau statistics report that less than 2% of the American population is now engaged in production farming. Collateral with this migration away from the family farm has been a decreasing enrollment of youth in traditional agricultural curriculum and related educational activities. County vocational agriculture instructors have recognized this evolution and have sought to diversify lessons to include such topics as ecology and environmental science, fisheries and wildlife habitat, forestry, horticulture, land use management, and soil and water studies.

The LaGrange County Wildlife Habitat Program was recognized in 2008 by the Indiana 4-H Foundation as innovative youth effort. It was inaugurated in the spring of 2005 as a joint venture of the Purdue Extension Service and the county vocational agriculture teachers. Among the many partnering organizations have been the Indiana DNR, the LaGrange County Parks Department, the LaGrange County Soil and Water Conservation District, the LaGrange County Community Foundation, and other individuals interested in promoting environmental education and wildlife stewardship. Purdue Extension and county school educators were provided habitat interpretive assistance this year by Scott Beam, county parks naturalist, and 4-H volunteer Jim Gust.