Montana student chapter hosts wildlife extravaganza

By Heather Fraley, University of Montana Student Chapter of TWS member

Kids and adults were packed into a small, light-green room where Jessi Knudsen Castaneda from Animal Wonders Inc., held Wilbur, a hog-nosed snake. The crowd of kids close to the front reacted noisily as he twined through her hands. She talked to the group about the snake’s life history.

The people in the room were participants in Wildlife Extravaganza, the biggest spring education and outreach event put on by the University of Montana Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society. The event was free and open to the public. A total of 372 people, including 195 adults and 177 kids, filtered through the Montana Natural History Center in Missoula, Montana. This year’s event, was held Saturday, April 21.

“It’s a great opportunity for the youth of Missoula to come experience science and wildlife, and it’s free,” says Zac Cloak, a member of the University of Montana Student Chapter. Cloak was one of 15 student volunteers at the event.

The student chapter coordinated with seven amazing groups who volunteered to set up a booth. The groups included the Missoula Butterfly House, National Wildlife Federation, Boone and Crockett Club, the Montana Chapter of The Wildlife Society, Watershed Education Network, Mule Deer Foundation and the Be Bear Aware program.

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., kids could watch a giant stick insect crawl along the hand of a Missoula Butterfly House Volunteer, get a mule deer antler hat from the Mule Deer Foundation booth, play pin the tail on the beaver at the National Wildlife Federation booth and learn about wildlife in North America while touching animal hides at the Montana Chapter of The Wildlife Society booth. They could also make a wildlife mask or get their face painted.

Megan Delamont, the current student chapter education and outreach coordinator spent two months planning the event. “All the effort the team put into this event was made worthwhile after the first kid showed up. It was truly beautiful watching these kids be as excited about wildlife as we all are,” she said.

Also at the top on the list of attractions were the two paid groups who brought live educational wildlife. Wild Skies Raptor Center and Animal Wonders Inc. were big draws.

Wild Skies Raptor Center is a raptor rehabilitation center. Student Chapter president Carly Muench volunteers with Wild Skies. During the event she held a tiny northern saw whet owl named Daya on a leather-gloved hand.

Owen Lloyd was one of the young participants that got to see Daya close-up. He came to the event with his mom and sister. “I like that she’s so cute and small,” he said about Daya.

A wild skies ambassador bird, Daya is not releasable into the wild. She was caught by a dog in 2015, and suffered head and eye injuries. She’s now blind in one eye and has lost her predatory instincts. Now she plays the important role of helping kids get excited about wildlife.

The other group, Animal Wonders Inc., is a Missoula-based nonprofit dedicated in part to helping the public learn about and respect wildlife. Along with Wilbur the snake, there were a number of other animals including a fluffy, white arctic fox that stared timidly from a table.

Jonathan Karlen, the student chapter’s incoming education and outreach coordinator, says the “Be Bear Aware” station was also a real hit. Participants could practice deploying inert canisters of bear pepper spray at realistic mounted bears.

“It was neat. They had the big taxidermied stuffed bears which I think frightened a few people driving by,” he said.

Karlen said another popular station was the scat station, where participants had to identify chocolate animal scat.

“The parents got a kick out of feeding their kids the scat.” According to him, the student volunteers who created the scat did a good job. “It was almost a little too realistic,” he said.

Overall the event was a big success, and there’s talk of including more student wildlife research among the booths in coming years. Karlen says that students can have the biggest impact on the kids.

“Next year we’ll show a little more of what jobs students are doing,” he said.