Students take a likin' to lichen

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On a recent field trip local students tromped through forests and picked through trees to collect lichen for dwindling caribou herds living in captivity.

Mountain caribou are amongst the most endangered mammals in North America. Loss of habitat from industrial and community development has decimated the population of this once numerous species. Lichen is a staple for wild migratory caribou, particularly in winter months when other food sources such as fresh leaves and flower buds are buried under a deep winter snowpack. 

Wildsight Educator Dave Quinn taught students in Monica Vording’s grade 3/4 class at Cranbrook’s Highlands Elementary School, and Andrea Kaufmann’s Grade 6 class at Kimberley’s McKim Middle School all about caribou through Wildsight’s EcoStewards education program.

Students learned about this keystone Canadian species, discussed habitat fragmentation, and even got to handle caribou skin and antlers. The program wrapped up with a field trip to a local forest, where the classes gathered bagfuls of lichen for caribou in captivity.

“Students learned about how human activities and inaction have wiped out an entire species here in the Kootenays, and that together we can accomplish a lot, even if it is just collecting lichen for the last few remaining caribou,” reflects Quinn.

Students loved the experience, competing against each other for who could collect the most. Together both classes collected over 50 kg of lichen, primarily witches’ hair, or Bryoria, lichen which is the caribou’s preferred food source with the highest nutritional value.

While the kids enjoyed the experience, they also expressed sorrow for the reality for Canada’s caribou.

“I thought it was pretty sad that caribou are disappearing and I want to bring the caribou back. I hope we can keep some of them around,” said Hudson Johnson. 

Aceah Jollie shared a similar sentiment:

“It is really sad that caribou are going extinct, because every animal has a right to survive.” – Aceah Jollie

Most of the lichen was sent to Kirby, an orphaned mountain caribou found near Revelstoke, and Kirby’s caribou friends who live at the Calgary Zoo. The remainder will be sent to the Nakusp Maternity Pen, where attempts are being made to restore the southern mountain caribou herd through a protected breeding program.

Highlands teacher Monica Vording says EcoStewards was a great experience for her students; they loved undertaking a project that directly benefits a species they learned so much about before heading on the field trip.

“I loved the balance between learning in the classroom as preparation for our outdoor  adventures and then heading outside. Discussions, videos, and artifacts shared helped  kids gain prior knowledge before heading out in the field,” says Vording.

At the end of the EcoStewards program, students from both classes were proud of the work they’d accomplished, and at least one left inspired to do more: 

“We had a lot of fun collecting lichen,” says Alice Short. “I might pick some and send it to Santa!”

EcoStewards wouldn’t be possible without the generous support of the Columbia Basin Trust, the Community Foundation of the Kootenay Rockies, Consecon Foundation, Copernicus Education Products, Fortis BC, the Government of Canada, the Kimberley & District Community Foundation, Kootenay Co-op, Osprey Community Foundation, the Province of British Columbia, TD Friends of the Environment; Wildlife Habitat Canada, and all of our individual donors for making this program possible. 

EcoStewards: McKim lichen collection day

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EcoStewards offers an excellent opportunity to showcase how environmental education can effectively and successfully provide opportunities for 21st century learning, including inquiry, action and place-based learning.Learn more