by Whit Gibbons

August 27, 2006

As I have said before, next to parental guidance, most of the credit for today's environmental awareness should go to schoolteachers. America's children are better educated about environmental issues and the science of ecology than ever before. Maybe this means the next generation will be able to manage the earth's habitats and its natural inhabitants wisely. The beginning of the school year is a good time to let children develop a sense of ownership about the natural world, which belongs to all of us.

The first step is to instill in children the realization that natural resources are critical for a healthy future--their future. Stressing the sanctity of all species, even those not officially recognized as endangered or threatened, is essential. Teaching students responsible stewardship for all natural environments and wildlife is a critical step toward preserving native species and their natural habitats. Kindergarten teachers are the first to impart this important attitude. Simply having children discover animals and plants in the school yard can be rewarding; they become aware that insects, birds, and trees are all part of the environment.

One approach for engendering environmental awareness of native species among older schoolchildren is an adopt-a-wildlife-species program in which students select a species found in their state. The species might be on the federal or state endangered species lists, or it might be one of interest for another reason, such as being the state tree, flower, bird, insect, mammal, or reptile. A properly planned program could develop a broad understanding of wildlife and habitat issues in students (as well as teachers and parents).

A wildlife adoption program at a school can lead to some fascinating projects; even the process of choosing the species could bring an awareness of regional wildlife. Simply selecting the species could be a stimulating exercise, as students justify in letters to the school newspaper or in classroom essays why a particular species should be chosen. Such a program could have application across the curriculum. Science classes are an obvious forum, but projects might also involve journalism, art, and library research. Term papers for language arts class could be based on the biological background, geographical range, and historical record of particular species. A social studies assignment could be to study how the Endangered Species Act became law, how it is implemented today, and what the political threats are to its continued existence.

For schools interested in developing such programs, find out which species in the state are officially protected. Students can obtain a list from the state's fish and wildlife (or game) department. The exact name of the agency varies by state but is called the Department of Natural Resources in many. To find out what species in their region are federally protected, students can obtain a complete listing of all endangered and threatened species on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site, www.fws.gov/endangered/. Students will need to determine the status of a particular species, as one may be federally protected in one state but not in another. For example, the gopher tortoise is federally threatened in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, but is only protected at the state level in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.

Some schools instituting an adopt-a-wildlife-species program have asked students to pledge to help with the management and protection of the chosen species through a fund-raising campaign. Collection jars were set up in homerooms where students could contribute spare change. The states’ natural resources departments encouraged such a program, and the money collected by the students was used in some identifiable program appropriate for the species. Such funds will never be adequate to support the nongame wildlife efforts needed for any state, but the program and process could help instill in students an awareness of the public’s role in preserving wildlife, and a personal sense of responsibility for wildlife and natural habitats.

Students who become involved in adopt-a-wildlife-species programs will increase their awareness of how local, state, and federal land management activities and political decisions affect habitats and wildlife. We need to encourage such awareness, particularly over the next few months as Congress deals with proposed modifications to the Endangered Species Act.

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