New Volunteer Corps Aims At Conserving Wildlife Habitat
GAINESVILLE—The people in University of Florida conservationist Will Sheftall’s class have one thing in common: They want to be good neighbors.
Not just to the Joneses next door or the Smiths across the street, but to the animals in their own back yards.
Sheftall is teaching a new program developed at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences aimed at training volunteers to be master wildlife conservationists.
The program is modeled on UF’s successful master gardener program. UF provides the training and the participants then serve as a community resource, helping others with questions about fostering wildlife habitat.
To the students in Sheftall’s class, being a good citizen means more than voting and recycling and such. It means making sure furry friends — and scaly ones — are not pushed out by urban growth and development.
“We’ve had master gardener volunteers for years, and 4-H volunteers and now we’ll have conservation volunteers,” said Sheftall, an agent in Leon County’s Cooperative Extension Office, a part of UF. “These citizens are interested in helping others in their community understand how they can manage their own property and neighborhoods for wildlife, and at the same time for good water quality and diversity of plant life, which make up good wildlife habitat.”
The graduates of the inaugural class earlier this year were commissioned to be educators in their communities. Their new duties include doing consultations and presentations to neighborhood associations and civic groups and sharing with others how they can help manage property for wildlife and for good water quality for aquatic animals.
Sheftall said the interest in conservation is a natural.
“People seem to have a natural interest in providing a home for animals as animals are displaced by urban growth,” he said. “And as communities grow, there seems to be an overwhelming interest on the part of residents to maintain wildlife habitat in the form of greenbelts, corridors and regional parks.”
But conservation is not limited to large parcels of land. In the suburban landscape, the volunteers are willing to go lot by lot to help each homeowner develop a yard that would woo wildlife. At times, a volunteer might do a demonstration with one yard to show that a site will still look good when it’s wildlife habitat. That, in turn, recruits neighbors who are interested in wildlife, Sheftall said.
“We have to understand that other things are important to a homeowner, too, not just wildlife,” Sheftall said. “But conservation won’t negatively affect those other priorities. You can still have turf for kids to play ball, children’s play areas, gardens and ornamental landscaping.
“It’s reassuring for a property owner to talk to someone who’s realistic. We do consider the goals of the landowner and the potential of the site itself. We wouldn’t recommend plants that wouldn’t naturally do well on a site. We work with the site, not against it.”
Sheftall’s inaugural class of 52 graduates from Florida’s Panhandle now is entering another phase of the program: learning how to mentor the conservation recruits that will come after it. The group has been divided into teams, and once those teams are operating well, another class of volunteers will be brought in for the 12-week course. Interest has been so strong that the next class, like the first, likely will have to turn people away.
Sheftall said he wants the graduates to get a few successes under their belts and become veteran educators before they are expected to mentor the novice conservationists. As representatives of UF, he said, they had to meet stringent requirements and even pass a certification exam.
“One of the things extension does is help people with technical information about how to accomplish their goals,” Sheftall said. “So communities that want better wildlife habitat in their urbanizing portions can look to extension, and eventually to these volunteers, as sources of information.”
Dawn Lachter, a UF zoology graduate who lives in Tallahassee, said she applied for acceptance into the conservationist program because of a strong interest in animals.
“We don’t all have inherent knowledge, so it’s good to have people you can go to to identify animals that are part of the community and part of the ecosystem,” Lachter said. “It’s important to be able to conserve the land, keep the animals there and understand how everything is related.”
Class member Elaine Burnett, who signed up through the Wakulla County extension office, agrees.
“If each person realizes that their own yard is a little habitat in itself, and if they can manage that habitat to the best of its ability, then that will help everybody else around them,” Burnett said. “Maybe they can help their neighbors learn how to do it, and if we all start managing for wildlife just a little bit, it will save us in the long run.”
- Cindy Spence