Youth range day held in Badlands
Youth Range Day started with a trouble free school bus ride - the bus loaded with 14 of Kadoka’s seventh graders. Their destination; the Williams Ranch, near Interior, South Dakota.
The journey began promptly at nine in the morning on October 11. Soft chatter among students was heard, just barely over the rumble of the engine, and the sound of wind rushing over the many rectangular windows lining the sides of the bus. This was just one of several busses, ferrying students to the Williams Ranch for range day. Additional busses also carried students from Philip, Interior, Long Valley and Midland to join in the day of fun and learning.
On this particular day, Ken Graupmann was serving as bus driver for Kadoka, his hands firmly at the wheel. Meanwhile, Logan Brakke kept a sharp eye on the students under his charge. This being Brakke’s third year supervising students on a field trip to Youth Range Day, he has seen many positive aspects to the day long field trip, and looks forward to it every year.
So apparently do the volunteer teachers for each of the four topics covered that day. Initially students were divided into four groups, and each sent to one of the learning stations. The stations included wildlife, soils, range, and geology/paleontology, with a touch of history. As the day progressed, each group would rotate into the next subject, spending roughly an hour in each area. Every learning subject had some type of hands on experimentation, as well as verbal instruction. At times materials were also handed out.
Paul Roghair led the wildlife learning session, starting with how to identify animal skulls by observing variations in type and length of teeth, length of snout, size and orientation of eyes, and the skull cavity size where jaw muscles are attached. These were a few of the features which could readily be examined on critter skulls shown to the students. Roghair also talked about how changes in the environment affect wildlife in many ways. Then how wolves, swift foxes, or coyotes are part of the food chain, and are affected by disease, over population, or even human behavior. The session was largely interactive, as students were challenged through questions, to put together various pieces of knowledge and logically find the answers.
A large part of the focus later that hour, led to why it is important for us to study humanity’s affect on wildlife, as we significantly alter the balance at times. Students learned interesting tidbits like, the difference between deciduous horns, and antlers; or how big horn sheep have a uniquely designed skull structure, that enables them to absorb the impact of head butting with other males. One of the many questions asked, brought forward a humorous series of responses, when students were asked how long lived porcupines might be, and what gave them better longevity than many critters. Well, there was no doubt in these youngster’s minds, as to what was the contributing factor to long life - a plethora of formidable quills. Quills that will continue to slowly burrow deeper into the attacking animal, long after it gives up looking for a porcupine dinner.
During the wildlife class, students were quizzed, and then further taught about ways to identify different types of deer, by using their antlers, tails, and coloring features. A fair number of students were already off to a great start, while for others, it was a completely new learning experience. Later several furs were passed around to give them an idea just how different one animal could be when compared to another.
Learning transitioned to wildlife management, where they learned about the trapping and testing or tagging procedures used by park employees. They were shown the value of monitoring wildlife, and many of the tools used in the process. Tyrel, one of the students, was even tasked to run a ways from the group holding a tracking collar, while Roghair and his colleagues showed the remaining students how their tracking equipment worked. Certainly, there was never a dull moment during the course of the wildlife learning experience.
Geology, paleontology and history, were also quite fascinating, as Ed Welsh shared about the many fossils found in South Dakota, and around the badlands area. Armed with many fossils to show, Welsh went on to elaborate on the various types of fossils in the area, explaining size, likely diet, and other interesting things to consider. Ammonites, Pachydiscus, Mosasaurus, Alligator, Oreodont, and Archelon fossils have all been found in South Dakota, along with a number of other curious finds.
Several students asked where they could find fossils, or if they found one, could they keep it. While the answer to that would have been entirely up to the landowner, they did get the opportunity to dig their fingers through some of the top soil, to find tiny white shells. Not considered fossils of course, but definitely something fun to remember the day by. Hopefully though, they walked away from the field trip with a greater curiosity about the past, and what life might have been like.
The soil learning experience was no less fascinating, as students were taught many things pertaining to soil. Soil, being comprised of a combination of sand, silt and clay, can greatly vary in consistency depending on the proportions of each. Students were given a handful of loose, dry dirt, and chaperones were given spray bottles to aid students in moistening up the material. Minutes later, and each student had a playdough consistency ball of dirt. Given instructions to flatten into an inch wide, four inch long strip, they were walked through a process used to determine what it was primarily made from, whether sand, silt or clay. A messy, but fun experiment.
During the course of the hour long learning session, students also learned that having healthy soil, is about more than what components it is made from. Healthy soil also requires humus (decayed organic material), bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, as well as creatures like worms. All these things combined are what make for good, productive soil.
The final class that day taught about the open range; what it can be used for, whether as grazing for cows and sheep, for hunting, growing crops, or recreational uses. Students learned about the various types of range grass, their nutritional value for grazing, at what times they contained the most nutrients during the year, and how to measure grassland to calculate average height; then to determine how many livestock it could support. They were also shown the importance of protecting range land - a matter not as simple as it sounds. Removing animals from range lands hurts matters as much as over grazing, mentioned Dave Ollila, as he continued sharing many of the factors that work in favor of keeping range land healthy.
Certainly that day, Kadoka area seventh graders were given much to think about, and a fair amount to absorb. The format, however, was interactive, as much as entertaining. Having enthusiastic, eager teachers was the key, along with having students that were curious, as well as having questioning minds. In all, there were 59 students, 15 adults, and six instructors. The entire day was sponsored by the combined efforts of the Jackson County Conservation District, monetary donations from WRWDD, BankWest in Kadoka, First National Bank in Philip, tables and coolers from the Kadoka Fire Department, and freezer/cooler space from the People’s Market. Range day was further supported by the invaluable assistance of parent volunteers, school staff, instructors, and owners of the Williams Ranch.