JUNCTION CITY, Kansas — As one of two states in the nation with both a 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) team in the National Wildlife Habitat Education Program Contest (WHEP) and with both teams posting stellar scores, South Carolina’s young people made their mark on the national stage after an extended absence.

4-H and FFA teams pose together with South Carolina state flag at WHEP competition.

The South Carolina 4-H Team and South Carolina FFA Team and their coaches/advisers pose together during the National WHEP Contest at the Rock Springs 4-H Center in Junction City, Kansas, July 14-17. Pictured are, from left: Mallory Dailey, Sarah Ebenhack, Chance Parker, Sophie Cox, Chase Greene, Stephen Schutt, Sydney Gambrell, Chase Land, Blake Berry, Shawn Underwood, Julianna Hernandez and Gina Spear.
Image Credit: Clemson University

For the first time in more than 20 years, South Carolina had two teams compete in the National Wildlife Habitat Education Program Contest at the Rock Springs 4-H Center in Junction City July 14-17. Its FFA squad finished in first place in the FFA division with a score of 277.36 while South Carolina 4-H finished third place in the 4-H division with a score of 301.56.

“The future of wildlife conservation is in good hands,” said Oconee County 4-H agent Mallory Dailey. “Where else can you find over 70 youth from across the country representing their states at the highest level and putting their wildlife knowledge to the test?”

The Wildlife Habitat Education Program is a natural resources program aimed to teaching wildlife and fisheries habitat management to youth ages 9-18 and providing them the opportunity to make real-life wildlife management decisions and exposing them to potential careers in wildlife management.

All told, 17 teams of three to four youth from 15 states tested their wildlife knowledge in a friendly competition.

Sydney Gambrell of the South Carolina FFA team said traveling to Kansas was an eye-opening experience because of the opportunity to see a different ecoregion outside of her home state.

“I became involved because I enjoy being able to take knowledge learned in the classroom, such as South Carolina wildlife and biology, and apply it to real life scenarios,” she said. “Some of my favorite moments were simply exploring the tallgrass prairie found in Junction City, Kansas, with my teammates. I would encourage any curious student to participate in the Wildlife Habitat Education Program for the opportunity to not only become more knowledgeable on their state’s wildlife, but also to work as a team with fellow students.”

South Carolina had eight youth from Anderson, Oconee and Pickens counties representing the state, along with their four coaches and advisers. The South Carolina 4-H team was comprised of members from Oconee County 4-H: Sophie Cox, Sarah Ebenhack, Chase Land and Shawn Underwood. The South Carolina FFA team was comprised of Pendleton High School FFA members Gambrell, Chase Greene, Julianna Hernandez and Chance Parker.

FFA team members compete in contest.

Members of the South Carolina FFA team, from left, Julianna Hernandez, Sydney Gambrell, Chance Parker and Chase Greene, participate in the Wildlife Management Plan portion of the National WHEP Contest.
Image Credit: Clemson University

“I chose to become involved with the program because I’ve always been very interested in wildlife, and particularly birds and other animals,” said Cox, the highest scoring individual for South Carolina 4-H. “I enjoyed it immensely; it was a really valuable experience from the perspective of being able to learn about not just the biology of the animals, which was my favorite part, but also how to manage them. The trip was also very fun. There were so many different activities we could do there, the competition was also very interesting and then just seeing the other people who were there doing it was a valuable experience.”

Along with Dailey, Oconee County Parks and Recreation Superintendent Stephen Schutt, Oconee County Parks and Recreation park ranger Gina Spear and Pendleton FFA adviser Blake Berry helped prepare and train the kids to compete at the national contest.

Both teams earned the right to compete at nationals with their performance at the South Carolina State Wildlife Habitat Education Program Contest in April at the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield. The contest was held in conjunction with Clemson Extension, Clemson University department of forestry and environmental conservation and private industries.

But, according to Dailey, the trip wasn’t all about fierce competition.

“While out in Kansas, youth had the opportunity to explore one of the last remaining areas of tallgrass prairie in the entire world,” she said. “The tallgrass prairie once covered over 170 million acres and now less than 4 percent of its historical range remains.”

The contest took place in the Flint Hills region of Kansas, which is home to the first land-grant university in the United States: Kansas State. The primary land-grant institution in South Carolina, Clemson is charged with improving the quality of life of South Carolinians by providing unbiased, research-based information through an array of public outreach programs, such as the 4-H program for youth development.

4-H team members compete in the national WHEP contest.

Members of the South Carolina 4-H team, from left, Sophie Cox, Shawn Underwood (orange hat), Sarah Ebenhack and Chase Land, participate in the Wildlife Management Plan portion of the National WHEP Contest.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Dailey said not only did the team members learn from some of the top extension wildlife specialists in the country, but they also saw many new wildlife species and plant species that are not found in South Carolina.

“Preparing for a wildlife contest that features species like greater prairie chickens and ring-necked pheasants was not the easiest,” she said. “Not surprisingly, there are not many prairies left in South Carolina and we had to use our imagination a bit to picture the vast rolling hills of grasslands from ‘Little House on the Prairie’ or the old computer game ‘Oregon Trail.’ Thankfully, we were able to utilize the Piedmont Prairie Garden of the South Carolina Botanical Gardens for practice before we headed out to Kansas.”

And while the South Carolina group visited the nation’s first land-grant university, they also had the chance to experience many other firsts — most of the team had never been to Kansas prior to the trip and many had never even been on a plane before. Along the way, they experienced some adventures along the way, such as eating Kansas City barbecue and visiting the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

“Most importantly, by participating in a program like WHEP, the kids are exposed to a new career path and gain an appreciation for wildlife and their habitat,” Dailey said. “They also learn a little more about the Cooperative Extension Service and the opportunities that are out there for youth who are interested in the outdoors and wildlife. It certainly will not be 20 years until the next time that South Carolina has a team participate in the National Wildlife Habitat Education Program Contest and we hope to leave our mark next year.”

The trip was funded by Greg Yarrow and the Clemson University forestry and environmental conservation department. A state WHEP Committee helped plan the Adult Educators Training and State Contest that was comprised of: Beau Bauer, wildlife biologist, Nemours Wildlife Foundation; Ashley Burns, assistant director of 4-H; Dailey; Jason Gore, South Carolina FFA; Cory Heaton, Clemson Extension wildlife specialist; Parker Johnson, Clemson Extension FNR agent; Glenda Lofink, 4-H volunteer; Jaime Pohlman, Clemson Extension FNR and 4-H agent; T.J. Savereno, Clemson Extension wildlife agent; Rick Willey, Clemson Extension 4-H natural resources specialist; and Yarrow, a Clemson University professor.