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Science on the road: PHS students help with bighorn sheep relocation

Environmental science students from Powell High School travel to Cottonwood Creek trailhead by bus to experience the capture and relocation of bighorn sheep by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department on Monday. Environmental science students from Powell High School travel to Cottonwood Creek trailhead by bus to experience the capture and relocation of bighorn sheep by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department on Monday. Tribune photos by Mark Davis

Monday before sunrise, Wyoming Game and Fish biologist Leslie Schreiber was stationed at a small campground 5 miles off the highway on a dusty dirt road east of Lovell. A stiff breeze made the low temperatures uncomfortable, stinging Schreiber’s cheeks and fingers, but she was pleased with the cold weather.

Bighorn sheep overheat when they’re stressed — and being netted and transported on the end of a tether by helicopter causes a lot of stress.

When a school bus carrying some of Wendy Smith’s students from Powell High School arrived in the sheep transition area, Schreiber jumped on board to go over the day’s work: Numerous Game and Fish biologists and game wardens and a contractor would capture 20 bighorn sheep by helicopter, then test and measure each captured animal and move them to Miner’s Canyon, in the Ferris Mountains north of Rawlins.

Schreiber went through the list of tests and measurements with the students, explaining the importance of controlling the population of the thriving herd in the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area while at the same time augmenting a growing herd in the Ferris Mountains.

She spoke with passion while the students listened intently.

Schreiber is impressed — if not a little jealous — by the opportunity the students had to join in on the work.

“What Mrs. Smith is doing at Powell High School is not standard,” Schreiber said. “Growing up in Northwest Indiana, I didn’t have the opportunities these students have here. She can open doors — open their eyes to these careers.”

From an early age, Schreiber was inquisitive about the natural world around her. She spent much of her youth contemplating questions like which bird made the songs she heard or which species of trees grew near her home.

Schreiber was raised in Crown Point, Indiana, an industrial area on the southern shores of Lake Michigan known more for its steel mills than beautiful beaches and natural beauty.

She loved to watch nature programs on television, amazed by the featured scientists and the work they did.

“I couldn’t believe people were getting paid to do this,” Schreiber said.

She didn’t make the connection between her education and vocation until she enrolled at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Her high school science courses were limited — almost entirely classroom lessons. Schreiber remembers taking only two field trips during her four years in high school. She doesn’t remember receiving much encouragement from her high school teachers to follow her dreams of a career in science.

Schreiber credits Professor Harmon Weeks for her jump from childhood dreams to becoming a scientist. Weeks taught a couple of her required classes at Purdue.

“He believed wildlife and humans could coexist. And he wasn’t afraid to tell you the reality and challenges of being a biologist,” she said.

His words were important to Schreiber, motivating her to continue. After finishing her master’s, she came to Wyoming to work as a seasonal employee for the Game and Fish. Following six years of seasonal work, Schreiber was hired as the Greybull area wildlife biologist.

She now speaks to both high school and Northwest College students.

Smith — who’s taught at Powell High School for 27 years — brought a few dozen of her environmental science pupils. They were on one of several field trips they take throughout the school year.

Smith’s natural resources class students did an overnight trip to Yellowstone National Park to do climate research on pikas, a small rodent that lives on the rocky slopes of the park.

“Pika are a species that are helpful in identifying climate change. They don’t thermoregulate very well, so as it gets hotter, they move higher in elevation,” Smith said.

Her class has been doing the research for four years, figuring out where pikas are located and gathering food samples. They share their results with the park.

Classes also have traveled to the South Fork to do bighorn sheep counts, studied aquatic habitats at area fish hatcheries, tested water at the Powell sewage ponds and traveled to oil fields and a refinery in Montana for research. When in the classroom, Smith invites experts to speak to her classes and students are constantly challenged with projects. Students in her environmental science classes are currently working on designs to help transform acreage near the school into good pheasant habitat.

Smith knows field trips are a good way to keep her students’ attention.

“How many kids in Wyoming are motivated to be outside? Field trips help keep them motivated,” Smith said between classes.

Matt Jones, a junior, hopes to spend part of his career in the outdoors. He’d like to be an outfitter or a guide — at least part-time. He’s already harvested a buck and a doe this year during bow season. He also bagged a pheasant recently.

“If I could work in the outdoors doing what I love, it’ll be time well spent,” Jones said.

He helped steady sheep while biologists took samples before being shipped to their new home. Jones was shocked by the species’ strength, despite the sheep being mildly sedated. And he relished the opportunity despite the brutal conditions. It’s an experience he’ll never forget.

“I love her class,” Jones said.

Alyssa Gould, a junior who splits her spare time between choir and cheerleading, credits Smith with helping her prepare for her future career.

“Mrs. Smith has really helped me. I have friends in other schools that haven’t even heard of environmental sciences and they don’t even think of going on field trips,” Gould said. “They’re just in awe of our educational programs.”

Once she graduates, Gould plans to earn a college degree in wildlife management. From there she might work on a master’s degree before looking for a position as a game warden.

“I’d be the first in my family to go into the law enforcement field,” she said. “The outdoors has always been a big part of my life. My family are big hunters.”

Gould has harvested deer and elk, and is also in FFA and shows pigs in 4-H. She credits her experiences in Smith’s class for helping her narrow down her vocation. She initially wanted to be an FBI agent, but then she took Smith’s class.

“She helped make up my mind,” Gould said.

Smith, who is well aware of the effects of positive reinforcement, has seen her nearly three decades of work at Powell High School pay off.

“Several of my former students have become biologists. Some are working for the Forest Service and the Game and Fish,” Smith said. “We have the ideal place for it. We’re close to Yellowstone, we work with Game and Fish all the time and we have great community involvement. We’re very lucky.”

Gould agrees Panther students are lucky, but more so of who is teaching than where they live.

“Mrs. Smith is great. We’re lucky to have her,” Gould said.

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