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From left, UW–Madison students Grant Witynski, Mace Drumright, and Abby Haydin, conduct a bird playback survey on a small lake at Kemp Natural Resources Station near Minocqua, Wis., early Thursday morning, May 23, 2019. The students were taking Forest and Wildlife Ecology 424: Wildlife Ecology Summer Field Practicum, a class held every other year at the station. The survey helps the students inventory wildlife populations on their assigned parcel of land, and involves playing bird calls on a small portable speaker, then listening and watching for responses.

At the end of a dock on a placid lake, Abby Haydin taps “play” on her phone, sending tunes to a wireless speaker. She is far from warm, sandy beaches where many of her University of Wisconsin–Madison peers are soaking up summer sun. Instead, her stocking cap fends-off the morning chill. The melodies — birdsongs — pipe from the tiny pier.

The trees come alive. Haydin, a sophomore wildlife ecology major from Cedarburg, Wisconsin, and two classmates look up and quickly identify the responding species. Black-capped chickadees. Northern parulas. Nashville warblers. Red-breasted nuthatches. Their classroom-gained knowledge is being put to use in the most serene of real worlds — Kemp Natural Resources Station near Minocqua, Wisconsin, some 200 miles north of UW–Madison — during the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology’s biennial wildlife summer camp.

In the two-week, two-credit practicum course, students work in small groups as they get intensive hands-on field experience identifying and handling Wisconsin wildlife, including small mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. They survey vegetation through the lens of habitat while developing management plans for species within an assigned 40-acre site. Fireside chats with local professionals stress how interactions with the public and landowners are critical to wildlife management. The course, held immediately after the close of spring semester in late May, is open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors majoring in wildlife ecology and — space-permitting — related majors, such as conservation biology, environmental sciences, and zoology.

UW–Madison student Ophelia Tsai walks through forest land checking traps at Kemp Natural Resources Station.

Kemp is the perfect place to hone field skills, with 231 acres of rare old-growth forests, bogs, lake coves and shoreline along Tomahawk Lake.

“Once you turn off Highway 47 onto Kemp’s driveway and come that three miles back onto the peninsula, it’s like you’ve entered another dimension,” says Scott Craven, an emeritus professor of forest and wildlife ecology who helped start the course in 1999. “You get the feeling that you’re somewhere in northern Canada. It’s isolated, private, and quiet. This is the kind of place where you have no idea what’s going on in the world, but when you’re here, you don’t care.”

Jamie Nack, an extension senior wildlife outreach specialist in the department and lead instructor for the course, says the field experience is critical to students getting internships and jobs after graduation.

“In this field you can’t just get the degree, write your resume, and be able to get jobs,” she says. “Even for limited term summer employment with DNR or any group up here, you have to have a resume that has some experience on it. [Students] have to get something to get their foot in the door, and this is a really good way to do it.”

UW–Madison student Ella Strei holds toads collected in a pitfall trap.

While Haydin completed the bird survey, senior wildlife ecology major Ella Strei of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, was scooping out pitfall traps, counting and releasing a group of toads that entered overnight. For Strei, as valuable as the intensive fieldwork was, what mattered most to her was the opportunity to connect with UW–Madison faculty and staff, as well as practicing professionals, in a less formal setting — something she admits she struggled with on campus.

“Seeing the animals is cool. Getting hands-on experience is really cool. But being able to interact with people who have been in the field for a long time has been what makes me feel like this is really worth it,” Strei says of her decision to take the course. “I really feel like I’m in the right place.”

The instructors stay approachable for the students, often accompanying them in the field. Nack handles course recruiting, the agenda and logistics, and leads a group of students. Professor and extension wildlife specialist David Drake, faculty associate Jim Berkelman and one graduate student from the department lead three more groups. Craven continues to support the course by cooking the meals for the small army.

UW–Madison students crowd the kitchen at lunchtime at Kemp.

Students stay in a log-frame lodge, have opportunities for recreation on the lake, and boundless natural solitude in which to reflect. The latter is not only encouraged but required through the course’s “Aldo Leopold Exercise.” Leopold, considered the father of wildlife management, chaired the department’s early precursors in the 1930s. He is known worldwide for his eloquent prose about ethics and nature, particularly in A Sand County Almanac.

“We want [our students] to be good naturalists,” says Nack. “There’s huge value in being able to decompress, reflect, sit in nature, and think about it.”

Ophelia Tsai, a senior from Taiwan majoring in wildlife ecology and pursuing a certificate in environmental studies, values that time, noting it’s so quiet at Kemp that she can hear the trees creaking in the breeze. She was moved by a fireside talk with Jonathan Gilbert, the biological services director for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. Hired by the tribes in the midst of the fishing rights turmoil of the 1980s, Gilbert shared Native American perspectives with the students on issues from game management to invasive species.

“The way we are learning about managing resources is not necessarily the only way that people think of managing them,” says Tsai. “We have a really huge indigenous group in Taiwan, and they also think about the natural resources in the same way. I really resonate with how indigenous people are managing their resources.”

Around an evening campfire, Jonathan Gilbert, biological services director for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, talks with UW–Madison students about tribal and cultural perspectives of natural resources management.

Other presentations by wildlife professionals from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, and the Ruffed Grouse Society exposed students to issues that greatly impact northern Wisconsin residents, but may be perceived differently (or seen less) downstate. They learned about bear and wolf management, Northwoods habitat management and the importance of young forests to certain wildlife, as well as conflict resolution related to nuisance animal problems.

“The whole thing has been a great experience,” says Aidan Waterhouse, a senior wildlife ecology major from Ann Arbor, Michigan. “I didn’t necessarily think that waking up at 5:30 to do bird surveys was going to be something I actually ended up enjoying. But I wake up, I’m ready to go and I want to see some wildlife. Here I am, doing it and loving it. It’s definitely cemented that this is what I’d like to be doing with my career.”

The application period for the next wildlife summer camp in 2021 will begin at the end of the fall 2020 semester.