Wildlife curriculum set

Published 3:09 pm Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Public schools in Region 8 are about to learn the significance of conserving wildlife that exists all-around us — in the coolest way possible.

Pulling a tractor trailer full of items meant to get students engaged with wildlife, perhaps even a taxidermied deer and bear, the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation is starting its first major outreach through nearly 30 elementary and middle schools in nine counties, delivering 90-minute presentations to students ranging from third to eighth grade.

The Foundation is set to pull on the scene of Victoria Elementary School and Kenbridge Elementary School Jan. 24.

The foundation, located in Halifax, has one goal in mind: to engage students who may be less familiar with the importance of nature or wildlife.

“As a naturalist, if there’s anything that I enjoy more than being outdoors, whether it’s photographing wildlife or just learning, because that’s where my education came from, just learning firsthand information outdoors … it’s being in a school, or a classroom, helping other people, particularly youngsters, understand the things that are just first nature to me,” educator Mike Roberts said. “That’s my life.”

Roberts is retired, having previously worked at Babcock & Wilcox Enterprises Inc. in Lynchburg. While there, he was inspired to communicate to the public school system that education on conservation is needed, and important for children to learn young.

He said he taught conservation of wildlife to more than 300,000 students in Virginia and a few other states.

“The program itself (has) a focus on not reconnecting, but connecting young people, children, boys and girls, to the natural environment,” Roberts said. “Unfortunately a lot of children today are not connected. They are totally disconnected from the reality of clean air, pure water, food, shelter and space, and the elements that we have to have to survive.”

If a nature presentation on the importance of stewardship brings to mind solemn exhibits of wildlife and excerpts from books, Roberts said that presumption is wrong.

“Our whole thrust here is teaching kids about the great outdoors for reasons of personal stewardship responsibilities,” Roberts said. “And we do that by exciting programming, jumping up and down, hooting like an owl, or bugling like an elk, or gobbling like a turkey.”

While Roberts, years ago, was speaking at schools about wildlife conservation, he met an unlikely ally.

Ward Burton was a NASCAR driver, winning the Daytona 500 in 2002. Burton, a Halifax resident, was passionate about nature, even delivering the keynote address for the White House Cooperative Conservation Conference under the Bush administration and acting as spokesman for the Virginia State Park System and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

He founded the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation in 1996, which, according to the foundation’s website, claims to be the “first” nonprofit organization started by a NASCAR driver.

Burton and Roberts, joined by a common mission to preserve wildlife, often crossed paths.

Roberts decided to join Burton’s foundation.

“It was just add water and stir,” Roberts said. “We just became instant friends.”

Burton and Robert’s drive to conserve wildlife continues today.

Roberts said now, more than ever, people need to be educated on the necessity of conservation.

When European colonists first settled in North America, it was estimated that 30 million white-tailed deer resided in the country. The Europeans saw commodity and trade, hunting game and stripping the land of its resources. By 1900, less than 300 years later, Roberts said the population of white-tailed deer would be considered an endangered species.

Bison, which had approximately 60 million, dwindled to fewer than 25.

He mentioned noted conservationists, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who put legislation in place to conserve land and wildlife in the 20th century.

While the numbers can be sobering, Roberts doesn’t plan on making the student presentations glum. Quite the opposite. Still, he wants to do his part to fortify conservation education in public schools.

“They are the people that are in charge in the next generation,” Roberts said. “I think that’s so awfully important today.”