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Wildlife Leadership Academy sparks passion for conservation in teens

Among the many activities Elizabeth Bruner remembers from attending a five-day Wildlife Leadership Academy camp near State College, she located a transmitter using radio telemetry — a way of tracking whitetail deer and other species.

“It was like I was a biologist conducting research!” she said. “I really loved that sort of hands-on learning, including time at a shooting range, collecting plants and assessing wildlife habitats. This program has fueled my passion for conservation and has given me the knowledge and resources to make a difference.”

So much so that Bruner, a homeschooled senior from Blairsville, has registered to attend Penn State’s DuBois campus for a two-plus-two program that includes an associate degree in wildlife technology and a bachelors degree in wildlife and fisheries science.

“The Wildlife Leadership Academy had a major role in my college choice, including a tour of the program,” she said. “I hope to become a wildlife biologist and conduct research on wildlife all over the world.”

The academy’s impact has been similar for Autumn McEntee, who attended a five-day Wildlife Leadership Academy program on wild turkeys.

“Being surrounded by conservation-minded peers, incredible mentors and having opportunities to do hands-on activities such as turkey dissections and a turkey calling contest made my time at camp unforgettable,” she said. “I am now a conservation ambassador doing outreach work in the community as well as volunteering with the Pennsylvania Trappers Association and Delta Waterfowl. After I graduated the Gobblers field school, I was 100 percent sure I wanted to pursue a career in the field of wildlife conservation.”

According to Wildlife Leadership Academy executive director Michele Kittell Connolly, the ultimate goal isn’t to get every participant to commit to a career in wildlife or fisheries biology, “But we certainly hope they go on to be conservationists. I like to think of our vision as educating and empowering the next generation of conservation leaders.”

The Wildlife Leadership Academy accepts young people ages 14-17 for one of five themed summer programs. Since the first session in 2007, the five-day camp experiences include specialized study in brook trout, bass, deer, turkeys or bears.

“We use those weeks as a springboard to teach about biology, ecology, forestry and aquatic-related topics. We also teach the students leadership skills,” said Connolly. “Not only are they learning hands-on and in an academic sense about those subjects, they are also learning to stand up and speak in front of a group and they have town halls where they have to talk about various subjects.”

The Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association serves an 11,000-square-mile watershed of the Susquehanna River, including Sullivan, Lycoming, Clinton, Union and Northumberland counties. Read more at www.middlesusquehannariverkeeper.org.

“We had a lot of classroom time where I listened to presentations from field experts and their research. Needless to say, I filled up a lot of pages with notes,” said Bruner. “I was also able to learn and grow in my leadership skills through the town hall meeting where I had to present my team’s case and answer questions based on a scenario. Teamwork was also a huge part of the field school and I learned so much about how to work together to accomplish a common goal.”

One of the many resources within the program comes via the professionals who bring their experiences to the students during the week.

“Gary Alt was the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s bear biologist and is very well known for his work, and he functions as our curriculum coordinator,” said Connolly. “We figured we better offer a bear-specific program while we had him so closely involved with the academy.”

Alt offers his skills in camps beyond the bear program.

“The curriculum is well-rounded with seminars ranging from turkey population dynamics to forest ecology,” said McEntee. “Some of the most memorable moments were when we got to watch a rocket net launch and when we practiced using radio telemetry with Gary Alt.”

The bass and brook trout programs are focused on aquatic issues and ecosystem needs.

“The students in the Brookies and Bass camps are digging in the streams, collecting and IDing macroinvertebrates with aquatic biologists, then figuring out what that means about the stream,” said Connolly. “They aren’t just fishing all week long, but learning about scientific process and how the different levels of the ecosystem support each other.”

The learning goes well beyond the five-week camp program.

“Students have to do outreach in their communities, and we offer incentives for them to keep up with their record books, such as the ability to attend professional meetings like with the PA Chapter of the Wildlife Society or the coldwater conference that happens every other year,” said Kittell Connolly. “We also offer college visits with Penn State Dubois and Susquehanna University’s Freshwater Research Institute’s fishery program. Students provide blog posts for our newsletters and we recently launched a website for alumni where we post jobs and other resources that they may find helpful as they grow in their college exploration and career efforts.”

The student-written weekly blogs are especially powerful for Connolly.

“When I see what they write, it just gives me hope. I kind of disagree with the idea that youth aren’t interested in our outdoor resources because I never seen more passion than what I see with our students,” she said. “If you want to get something nice and positive in your inbox, then sign up for our NextGen blog.

“Ultimately, our belief in them should be positive and not cynical. We hope they take that positive energy and give back to their community and make a difference long-term for our natural resources.”

The Wildlife Leadership Academy is currently accepting nominations for the class of 2022, teens between the ages of 14-17 nominated by coaches, teachers or instructors (not family), who can vouch for the student’s interest for our outdoor resources.

For more information about the program, including the five summer camp programs (held at Krislund Camp and Conference Center near Madisonburg), visit www.WildlifeLeadershipAcademy.org

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