After a smooth return to an in-person setting for the annual state contest after two years away, the South Carolina Wildlife Habitat Education Program (WHEP) kept its momentum rolling right onto the national stage — bringing home another National Championship back to the Palmetto State.
The S.C. Future Farmers of America (FFA) team is the WHEP National Champion in its division, as the winning FFA Team from Battery Creek High School in Beaufort was comprised of team members Hunter Hollingworth, Tanner McCracken, Hunter Smith and Diego Vega. Vega also came in third place for the individual contest.
“It was great to see so many groups come together in person for fellowship and competition,” said Beth Ann Melton, who advised the team.
Vega said what he enjoyed most about the event, which concluded Aug. 3 in London, Ky., was meeting new people and having hands-on experience in the field.
“The best part of the WHEP National Contest, besides participating in the actual contest, was meeting people from all over the country and learning from other high schoolers about wildlife from their states. It was great to be in a place where we could share our love for wildlife and the outdoors with others, but at the same time represent South Carolina on the national level,” he said.
The S.C. 4-H team, meanwhile, also turned in a strong performance. That squad was comprised of Katelyn Campbell, Kaden Cooley, Emma Garrett and Stacey Martin from Laurens County and Erika Pisik as their coach.
At the 2021 National WHEP Contest, the 4-H team from Laurens County that included Cooley, Garrett and Martin, and was also coached by Pisik, won first place in their division to garner their own national championship last year.
WHEP is a hands-on environmental education program that provides youth with an opportunity to test their wildlife knowledge in a friendly competition, as each state supporting WHEP conducts an annual contest where teams of three to four similarly aged individuals gather.
And the teams’ stellar efforts in London built on superb showings at the annual State WHEP Contest, which was held with generous support from the Nemours Wildlife Foundation on the Foundation’s property located near Yemassee on April 30.
“Nemours is a perfect representation of how wildlife management and conservation go hand and hand,” said Oconee County 4-H Youth Development Agent Mallory Maher. “Not only is it beautiful, but it is a place where people can go to see wildlife management practices in action and is the ideal setting for youth who are aspiring wildlife professionals to put their knowledge to the test. It is a wildlife-lover’s paradise, and when it came to selecting a location for the state contest, Nemours was an easy choice.”
Maher said the S.C. WHEP Committee wanted youth to have the opportunity to explore such a place as Nemours, where old rice fields, fresh and brackish water marshes, upland pine and hardwood forest, bottomland hardwoods and cypress/tupelo forest habitats are all represented within a nearly 10,000-acre area.
The 2022 S.C. WHEP Contest had eight teams from across the state participate at the contest, which were separated into a Junior- and Senior-aged Division Competition.
Seniors were asked to write a management plan for northern pintail, river otters, loggerhead shrikes and northern bobwhite quail, while juniors had to write a management plan for white-tailed deer for the team portions of the competition.
“One of the greatest things about WHEP is the opportunity to see what the teams come up with for their written management plan and see the decisions that they would make if they were the wildlife biologist in charge,” Maher said. “It is also inspiring to see the teamwork that each team displays during the contest.”
The winning Senior 4-H Team was from York County 4-H — team members included A.J. Dover, Cora Denny, Sam Cole and Miranda Hughes — while the winning FFA Team was the same one from Battery Creek that would go on to capture national glory.
“I got to make friends that will last a lifetime, along with learning how we could help our environment with each little thing we do,” Hughes said. “It was such an amazing experience that has impacted greatly how I view agriscience. I just want to say thank you to everyone, once again, for this amazing opportunity.”
Denny said she learned many things during the WHEP competition but had to be careful not to overthink the contest’s on-site recommendation portion.
“This competition, and the studying for it, helped me in my future career because I want to be a DNR officer,” Denny said. “It taught me how to identify animals and plants and about land conservation. I liked the wildlife management plan part because we got to walk around and look for different kinds of tracks that animals left and the plants that they eat. I can’t wait to do this again next year.”
The first-place Junior 4-H Team was comprised of Irelynn Connors, Ridge Gardener and Blake Proffitt from Clarendon 4-H.
In terms of individual contests at the event held at Nemours in April, in the Senior Wildlife Challenge, Andrew Powell took first place over Wyatt Vaught in second and a three-way tie between Ethan Buttkin, A.J. Dover and Hunter Smith for third.
“I really liked the location (at Nemours) and hanging out with my friends,” Dover said. “I learned that the simplest answer is normally the right one. It made me consider some kind of DNR field as a career.”
Among the Juniors, Gardener, Proffitt and McKenzie Bennett took first, second and third, respectively, while Gavin Parler and Powell finished atop the On-Site Wildlife Managements Practices Recommendations, in that order.
Maher said she was excited to finally be able to deliver the state contest in person again, after the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into their plans 2 years ago.
“What stood out the most to me was how enthusiastic every youth, coach, parent and volunteer was to be back in-person and how much they all enjoyed the friendly competition,” Maher said. “Personally, I was just so happy that so many people came all the way down to Nemours and really got to appreciate one of the most magnificent places in our state, so I am very thankful for the staff at the Nemours Wildlife Foundation for hosting us.
Dedicated to teaching wildlife and fisheries habitat management to junior and senior level (ages 9-18) youth in the United States, WHEP is a 4-H and FFA youth natural resource program. The program asks participants to learn about a variety of wildlife terms and concepts, as well as habitat, how to judge the quality of wildlife habitat, wildlife habitat management practices and wildlife damage management.
“We just want youth to be exposed to nature in as many ways as possible and understand the value of land and how managing habitat can benefit wildlife and fish species,” Maher said. “I know that the youth who participate in WHEP will carrying those skills and experiences with them throughout their lives, regardless of whether they end up in a natural resources-related profession.”
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