GRAND FORKS -- On a gray Saturday in March with a threat of snow in the forecast, a half-dozen University of North Dakota students worked in the Grand Forks Greenway cleaning out wood duck boxes and removing boxes that were beyond repair.
The calls of Canada geese and even a distant sandhill crane occasionally could be heard, a fitting serenade for the students, all members of the UND Chapter of The Wildlife Society, an international organization of wildlife professionals and students pursuing careers in the field.
Part community outreach and part research opportunity, the Greenway project will benefit wood ducks along the Red River and allow students to ask questions and learn about the wildlife using the boxes, said Tanner Stechmann, a UND graduate student and past president of the UND Wildlife Society chapter who is overseeing the project.
It’s also a way for the wildlife students to show they’re working to make a difference in a field where jobs are at a premium. Chapter members will build and install additional boxes in the Greenway during the next few weeks.
“Being a past president, I know that for organizations, student groups that want to be competitive and be able to give opportunities to their students, we needed a group project we all could do together,” Stechmann said.
That kind of energy and enthusiasm has been a trademark of the UND Wildlife Society chapter in recent years. The student chapter, which aims to provide students with career skills and opportunities to network with professionals, has been making waves both at state and national conferences.
It hasn’t always been so.
Students give credit for the turnaround to their advisor, Susan Ellis-Felege, who was named 2017 Student Chapter Advisor of the Year. Ellis-Felege, a UND associate professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management, received the award in September at The Wildlife Society’s National Conference in Albuquerque, N.M.
The honor was well-deserved, said John Palarski, a senior Fisheries and Wildlife major who wrote the letter nominating Ellis-Felege for the award. Before Ellis-Felege joined the UND faculty in 2011 and became advisor, the UND chapter was “pretty much dead,” Palarski said.
Now, UND has one of the most active student chapters in the country, regularly bringing among the largest student delegations to Wildlife Society national conferences, Palarski said.
Chapter members routinely win top awards in poster competitions at both state and national conferences, he said.
“She slowly brought (the chapter) back, and now it’s actually a force to be reckoned with,” Palarski said. “She does a good job of getting students involved. “She’s so energetic, and it’s contagious. … To win that kind of prestigious award is really something special.”
Rebuilding the chapter
The UND chapter had about 10 students and $300 in its account when she took over as advisor, Ellis-Felege recalled.
“Much like the (fisheries and wildlife) program, it really needed some reinvigoration,” she said.
Today, the chapter has 30 or more active members who get involved in numerous projects and raise funds to support outreach work, such as the wood duck box project, assisting with surveys at wildlife refuges and providing other professional development opportunities. Funds also cover expenses for lodging and travel to the state Wildlife Society annual conferences and offset costs for students to attend the national conferences, Ellis-Felege said.
“They have to generate thousands of dollars to be able to do that, and they’ve done that,” she said.
Chapter members sell coffee and baked goods in the biology department and, occasionally, clean the Ralph Engelstad or Betty Engelstad arenas after athletic events, Ellis-Felege said.
The big fundraiser is an annual wildlife supper the chapter hosts every April, which includes a wild game feed and raffle for fishing trips, wildlife art, gift cards and various other donated items, Ellis-Felege said.
This year’s wildlife supper is set for 6 p.m. April 21, in Woodland Lodge at Turtle River State Park.
Ellis-Felege, who has spent recent summers along with a handful of UND biology students conducting waterfowl research at a remote camp near Churchill, Manitoba, on the Hudson Bay coast, said she learned about the award last June while spending a couple of days away from camp catching up on emails at a house in Churchill.
“I can remember sitting right in the living room and thinking, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool,’ and so it was pretty neat to find out like that,” she said.
“It’s one of the biggest awards you can get for being involved with The Wildlife Society, and to me, it was a huge honor. It was a very humbling thing, because this is student-driven, and the students appreciate and took the time to write a letter and a nomination for me to get this award. On top of all the other things that they’re doing, for them to take the time to do that means a lot.”
Although the students credit their advisor for the chapter’s turnaround, Ellis-Felege said she’s been fortunate to work with strong student leaders, including Steffanie Brewer, the current chapter president, and former presidents, such as Stechmann and Lucas Knowlton, the 2016-17 president.
“They saw I was excited about it and saw it as an opportunity for them to get additional experience,” Ellis-Felege said. “I think we have some student leaders that are excited and energetic. And if you have faculty that show it’s important, that makes a difference for them professionally. That goes on quite a bit in terms of encouraging students.
“Those are kind of the things that maybe drive it, and they’ve had fun.”
Knowlton, a UND senior who graduates in May, recently accepted a job doing environmental data management with Barr Engineering Co. in the Twin Cities.
The real world experience he gained through the student Wildlife Society chapter, which includes everything from electrofishing to banding ducks, and the opportunity to network with professionals, helped him get the job, Knowlton said.
“This job and everything that has gotten me up to this point wouldn’t have been possible without The Wildlife Society,” he said. “The Wildlife Society gave me a platform to talk about some different topics we normally wouldn’t in class and look into other opportunities within the major as far as different jobs, different avenues and routes you can take.
“I really do owe it all to The Wildlife Society and everything it provides students.”
As chapter president, Brewer said being involved with The Wildlife Society has helped her overcome her natural shyness and become more comfortable in talking with professionals at conferences and other events about her passion for wildlife.
Joining the UND chapter her freshman year was “a leap of faith,” Brewer said.
“I’ve always been passionate about wildlife; I just didn’t know how to get out there and experience things,” she said. “After that first meeting, I was hooked right away.”
Brewer recalled the first time she talked with a wildlife professional.
“I was terrified,” she said. “I had no idea what to ask, what to say and how to approach them. I had to have Susan help me. She coached me along. It has really built up my confidence in being able to talk to people, not only about what they do but how passionate I am about what I’m doing.”
Being on hand to watch Ellis-Felege receive the Student Advisor of the Year Award at the national conference in Albuquerque was a highlight, Brewer said.
“You have no idea how excited all of us were when we found out she actually won the award,” Brewer said. “She’s amazing -- that’s probably the best word I can use to describe her. She’s really there to foster a learning environment, and we’re very fortunate to have her here.”
Ellis-Felege said she sees her role as chapter advisor as an investment in the future.
“These students are the key to the future of conservation,” she said. “So anything I can do to help them be successful and get the skills they need, I want to do.”