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Students learn about conservation
Members of Darlington High School Advanced Placement Environmental Education class attended a field day at Five Oaks recently. Dianne Moller of Hoos Woods is at far right with Wapaha, her golden eagle.
For those who have visited the famous "shack" on Aldo Leopold's Sauk County property, the sense of purpose carries over to society's on-going attempts to nurture and protect the land.

While few could ever equal Leopold's insight into the ecosystems that sustain us, or match his unparalleled eloquence at describing the challenges of his time, his land ethic inspires all conservationists to strengthen the ties between people and the earth. From "Teaching Wildlife Conservation in Public Schools," Leopold suggests, "The citizen-conservationist needs an understanding of ecology not only to enable him to function as a critic of sound policy, but to derive maximum enjoyment from his contacts with the land."

Approximately 40 students from Pecatonica, Darlington and Argyle high schools visited Five Oaks recently to learn about the value of wetlands to the health of our water resources from Wisconsin Waterfowl Association Executive Director Jeff Nania. They heard Iowa County Forester Tom Hill describe in detail the woodland ecosystems of southwestern Wisconsin while raptor rehabilitator/educator Dianne Moller displayed her collection of birds of prey to understand the balance of nature they help maintain.

"More than half of our wildlife species depend on wetlands to survive," says Nania, as he digs around in the middle of the wetland restoration project completed a few years earlier along the Pecatonica River.

Then a question: "Which species is the most dependent?" The answer is predictable, yet profound. "It's us - humans," Nania proclaims. He goes on to explain that while 67 percent of the earth's surface is covered with water, for the first time in our history less than one percent of it is available to us to drink.

Meanwhile, Hill leads another contingent along the river's edge and up a steep incline, describing as he goes the identifying characteristics of the mixed hardwoods and conifers inhabiting the north-facing slope.

"There are two kinds of hickories in southern Wisconsin," he explains, "shagbark and bitternut." The students learn that the nuts from the latter are bitter as the name implies, while the fruit of the shagbark is sweet.

The students study the mechanics of measuring the amount of timber in a tree using the forester's tape to determine the diameter of a tree at breast height. The observe that special tape already has the circumference built in.

"So, how do we calculate the area?" he asks. "Use Pi R-squared," an attentive Argyle student responds quickly. "Good job," Hill responds with a smile.

Hill instructs in the use of the clinometer, a device designed to measure angles and slope. "If a road is too steep, it will erode," he explains.

At a bend in the river, under the shadow of a recently installed raptor nesting box, Moller describes the eating habits of a red-tailed hawk. "It typically eats two to three mice a day," she says, comparing it to a kestrel that will eat a mouse or sparrow-sized bird each day.

Moller offers historical perspective on the harm done to raptors in the past. "Years ago, before they were protected, people trapped eagles for their feathers for arts and crafts, then sometimes left them without the feathers they need to fly."

"How long do you think it would take for the bird to die of starvation?" she asks. The answers vary, the correct one being three to four weeks. "Now it is illegal to possess an eagle's feather," she warns.

A serendipitous moment occurs as she finishes the session. Someone looks to the sky to see a bald eagle soaring in wide circles over the river valley; then another appears to the east. "It seems like it's more than a coincidence" a student comments.

"It provided a great visual in identification," Moller said later.

Teacher chaperones expressed a strong connection between the topics covered and their environmental education efforts. "The material fit right into the curriculum of environmental science, said Darlington High School teacher Stu Vamstad, a sentiment echoed by Les Bieneman who teaches the Integrated Environmental Studies program at Argyle. "The program was exactly what IES is looking for."

One can only imagine what Aldo Leopold would have had to say to the students on this day. Perhaps something similar to this passage from The Round River - A Parable: "To learn the hydrology of the biotic stream we must think at right angles to evolution and examine the collective behavior of biotic materials. Instead of learning more and more about less and less, we must learn more and more about the whole biotic landscape."

- Lee Fahrney is the Monroe Times outdoors writer. He can be reached at (608) 967-2208 or