What We Learned At the National Wildlife Habitat Educational Program (WHEP) Event

This August, my sister Ella, Dad and I had the chance to compete in the National Wildlife Habitat Education Program (WHEP) Competition. By Sophia Maloney, Chester County 4-H Member.

Sophia (L) and Ella (R) Maloney are Chester County 4-H Members; they were accompanied by their father. Mark Maloney (Center), as coach and chaperone to the 2015 WHEP Contest in Alabama

Sophia (L) and Ella (R) Maloney are Chester County 4-H Members; they were accompanied by their father. Mark Maloney (Center), as coach and chaperone to the 2015 WHEP Contest in Alabama

Going into the competition, we didn’t know what to expect, but Dr. Sanford Smith, from Penn State, helped us get prepared. He advised us to attend with the desire to learn and grow from the experience, not just focus on winning. Although we felt somewhat at a disadvantage to the other states, as one of only two incomplete teams (a team needs three 4-H'ers and we only had two), we were determined to try our best. This was our first time in the South, but right from the start, we knew we would have fun and learn a lot.

The first full day of the competition was not actually a competition, but a day of exploration. We toured a local farm, where experts on habitat conservation taught us about how to care for the land. Riding on a wagon attached to a truck, we drove through one of the most beautiful forests I had ever seen. Throughout the course of the tour, we learned about how farmers and landowners could control for certain animals and plants. During a talk about quail hunting, we learned how quail needed coverage on the forest floor to protect their young. On the edge of a picture perfect lake, we learned how to control fish populations to keep lakes healthy for fish, and how to manage for algae, unwanted animals, and water quality. In the middle of a field, under a magnolia tree, we learned about the effects of invasive grasses, how to manage them, and, during a tangent, the different merits of deer feed. Did you know? Deer food companies might advertise that their food makes antlers grow bigger, but in reality, age is the biggest factor in antler size. One aspect of conservation that was stressed throughout the competition was the use of prescribed fire. Although most people see fire as a destructive force of nature, in reality, it is one of the best tools to stimulate forest growth and diversity. Coming into the competition, we had read about the benefits of fire, but during the tour, the beneficial nature of burning became very apparent and real to us. Burning prevents forests from becoming overgrown, and stimulates new vegetative grow to provide cover, food and shelter for wildlife.

The competition itself, held on the third day, put all of the knowledge we learned this year to the test. The first event stressed the idea of promoting one species, while controlling another. We were required to visit a site, and decide which management techniques would promote or discourage specific species. The second event, teamed our state up to create a conservation plan to promote certain guidelines. For me, this was my favorite event. Our team (we had joined up with Idaho to compete for fun) got to plan the creation of a forest park. We let our creative side shine through while demonstrating our knowledge of the different requirements that wildlife species in the park would need to flourish. The third event reminded me of a science lab. We were given a test and clipboard and had to identify fossils, wildlife signs, taxidermied animals, and answer questions about many different species. It was an amazing experience to get up close to the specimens, as I had only seen pictures before. Throughout our time in Alabama, we not only learned more about how to care for our environment, but also about the many amazing people from across the country. We were able to form new friendships with people from states we had never been to, and saw how many teens our age cared about managing forests and wildlife. 4-H made it possible for us to not only learn about how to take care of our environment, but also form lasting connections with other teens who share our interests too!