At the end of a dock on a placid lake, Abby Haydin taps play on her phone, sending tunes to a wireless speaker. She is far from the warm, sandy beaches where many of her peers are soaking up summer sun. Instead, her stocking cap fends off the morning chill. The melodies — birdsongs — pipe from the tiny pier. The trees come alive.
Haydin, a sophomore wildlife ecology major, and two classmates look up and quickly identify the responding species. Black-capped chickadees. Northern parulas. Nashville warblers. Red-breasted nuthatches. Their classroom-gained knowledge is being put to use in the most serene of real worlds — Kemp Natural Resources Station near Minocqua, Wisconsin, some 200 miles north of UW–Madison — during the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology’s biennial wildlife summer camp.
In the two-week, two-credit practicum course, students work in small groups as they get intensive, hands-on field experience identifying and handling Wisconsin wildlife, including small mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. They survey vegetation through the lens of habitat while developing management plans for species within an assigned 40-acre site. Fireside chats with local professionals stress how interactions with the public and landowners are critical to wildlife management.
Held immediately after the close of spring semester in late May, the course is open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors majoring in wildlife ecology and — space-permitting — related majors, such as conservation biology, environmental sciences, and zoology. Kemp, with its 231 acres of rare old-growth forests, bogs, lake coves, and shoreline along Tomahawk Lake, is the perfect place to hone field skills.
“Once you turn off Highway 47 onto Kemp’s driveway and come that three miles back onto the peninsula, it’s like you’ve entered another dimension,” says Scott Craven MS’76 PhD’78, an emeritus professor of forest and wildlife ecology who helped start the course in 1999. “You get the feeling that you’re somewhere in northern Canada. It’s isolated, private, and quiet. This is the kind of place where you have no idea what’s going on in the world, but when you’re here, you don’t care.”
Jamie Nack MS’02, an extension senior wildlife outreach specialist in the department and lead instructor for the course, says the field experience is critical to students getting internships and jobs after graduation.
“In this field, you can’t just get the degree, write your resume, and be able to get jobs,” she says. “Even for limited-term summer employment with DNR or any group up here, you have to have a resume that has some experience on it. [Students] have to get something to get their foot in the door, and this is a really good way to do it.”
While Haydin completes the bird survey, senior wildlife ecology major Ella Strei scoops out pitfall traps. She counts and releases a group of toads that entered overnight. Strei finds the intensive fieldwork valuable, but what matters most to her is the opportunity to connect with UW–Madison faculty and staff and practicing professionals in a less formal setting — something she finds more difficult to do on campus.
“Seeing the animals is cool. Getting hands-on experience is really cool. But being able to interact with people who have been in the field for a long time has been what makes me feel like this is really worth it,” Strei says. “I really feel like I’m in the right place.”
The instructors stay approachable for the students, often accompanying them in the field. Nack handles course recruiting, the agenda, and logistics, and she leads a group of students. Professor and extension wildlife specialist David Drake, faculty associate Jim Berkelman, and one graduate student from the department lead three more groups. Craven continues to support the course by cooking the meals for the small army.
Students stay in a log-frame lodge, have opportunities for recreation on the lake, and find boundless natural solitude in which to reflect. The latter is not only encouraged but required through the course’s “Aldo Leopold Exercise.” Leopold, considered the father of wildlife management, chaired the department’s early precursors in the 1930s. He is known worldwide for his eloquent prose about ethics and nature, particularly in A Sand County Almanac.
“We want [our students] to be good naturalists,” says Nack. “There’s huge value in being able to decompress, reflect, sit in nature, and think about it.”
Ophelia Tsai, a senior from Taiwan majoring in wildlife ecology and pursuing a certificate in environmental studies, values that time, noting it’s so quiet at Kemp that she can hear the trees creaking in the breeze. She says he was moved by a fireside talk with Jonathan Gilbert PhD’00, the biological services director for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. Hired by the tribes in the midst of the fishing rights turmoil of the 1980s, Gilbert shared Native American perspectives with the students on issues from game management to invasive species.
“The way we are learning about managing resources is not necessarily the only way that people think of managing them,” says Tsai. “We have a really huge indigenous group in Taiwan, and they also think about the natural resources in the same way. I really resonate with how indigenous people are managing their resources.”
Other talks and appearances exposed students to issues that greatly impact Northern Wisconsin residents but may be perceived differently (or seen less) downstate. Scott Walter MS’96 PhD’99 of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources spoke about the state’s large carnivores and its management of bears and wolves, which are widely debated. Ron Eckstein BS’71 MS’75, retired from WDNR, where he worked on the recovery of bald eagle and osprey populations, touched on Northwoods-specific habitat management. Jon Steigerwaldt, a regional wildlife biologist with the Ruffed Grouse and American Woodcock Societies, focused on the importance of young forests to certain wildlife. And personnel from the U.S. Department of Agriculture demonstrate how they attempt to resolve conflicts between people and wildlife, including nuisance animals, livestock kills, and crop damage.
“The whole thing has been a great experience,” says Aidan Waterhouse, a senior wildlife ecology major. “I didn’t necessarily think that waking up at 5:30 to do bird surveys was going to be something I actually ended up enjoying. But I wake up, I’m ready to go, and I want to see some wildlife. Here I am, doing it and loving it. It’s definitely cemented that this is what I’d like to be doing with my career.”
The application period for the next wildlife summer camp in 2021 will begin at the end of the fall 2020 semester.
View more photos of the field practicum.This article was posted in Fall 2019, Healthy Ecosystems, On Henry Mall, Online Extra and tagged Abby Haydin, Aidan Waterhouse, David Drake, DNR, Ella Strei, Forest and Wildlife Ecology, Jamie Nack, Jim Berkelman, Jon Steigerwaldt, Jonathan Gilbert, Kemp Natural Resources Station, online extra, Ron Eckstein, Scott Craven, Scott Walter.