The Bitter Root Water Forum (BRWF) hosted seventh grade students from Corvallis, Darby, Lone Rock and Victor for their annual Earth Stewardship Program field trips in May.

The field trips were the culmination of the year-long effort with monthly classroom programs by natural resource professionals from the Bitterroot National Forest, Backcountry Horsemen, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and the Ravalli County Weed District.

The grand finale on Tuesday at Bass Creek featured stations with former BRWF board president Dave Schultz teaching students about measuring stream volume and velocity and other stations about aquatic insects, native fish, noxious weeds, local birds and Salish games. Station educators included Leslie Nyce, Marilyn Wildey, Christy Schram, Chris Maul-Smith and Samantha O'Byrne.

 “Year after year, students always enjoy exploring the water that flows through the Valley,” said Katie Vennie, program coordinator for BRWF. “The students have the opportunity to collect aquatic insects and are always surprised by how much life there is in the creek or the river. Despite wearing waders, they seem to come out of the creek a bit wetter than expected, but they also have a newfound appreciation for the importance of clean water and a healthy environment.”

At Leslie Nyce’s station students reviewed what they learned about native fish and played a game advancing to different stations and to learn real life scenarios about fish fates.

“We review the class lesson where they identify the 10 native fish of the Bitterroot,” she said. “They play a game where they learn about what fish might encounter in their lifetime. A lot of it has to do with us catching them, doing research on them but maybe they get poached, eaten by an osprey or an otter.”

Some lucky “fish” ended up on the Bitterroot National Forest with good habitat and food so they survived to the end of the game.

The Program supports BRWF’s mission to connect people to the Bitterroot watershed through education and restoration. 

Earth Stewardship Program presentations taught over 150 students about the importance of snowpack, local large carnivores, native Montana fish, the Bitterroot Valley watershed, noxious weeds and recreational ethics and etiquette.

Chris Maul-Smith taught traditional Native American games that were approved by the tribes of Montana to be shared with other tribes, public schools and the general public.

Maul-Smith said the games were reclaimed in 1998 after they were banned from natives 100 years ago.

“At boarding schools they took away their clothing, their hair, their traditions, and their games to make them as white as possible but they reclaimed them,” Maul-smith said. “They started gathering them and got them approved and started teaching people.”

Maul-Smith said all the games on the game blanket have been approved for sharing. He has attended three intensive workshops to learn the heritage and game rules.

“I share the traditions and the stories with the students,” he said.

Samantha O'Byrne and Aime Kelley led the station about birds.

“We tie in an element of earth stewardship that is fun, active and living,” O’Byrne said. “Birds are an important part of the ecosystem because they are a bio-indicator of healthy ecosystems. Connecting kids with fun and a healthy environment increases their awareness.”

Students reviewed birding skills, learned about optics and went on a walk to identify birds. O’Byrne said that over the two days of fieldtrips at Bass Creek students correctly identified 14 species of birds including red crossbills, evening grosbeaks, nuthatches, hawks, woodpeckers, robins, ravens and a hummingbird.

“It’s a diverse spot because we are at the edge of a dry forest and a wet forest,” O’Byrne said.

Students were refreshed on leaving no trace especially food.

At the “Physical Properties of Water” station students measured a cross section of the stream to get the area and the speed of the water flow.

“We’ll use those two units to calculate how much water goes through here, quantity,” Schultz said.

Students said this is important information to know if it will flood, if it is a good fishing spot and if you want to irrigate. They said in summer creeks get lower, slower and warmer. Schultz said that to keep the fish healthy in that situation they cut back or cut off fishing hours and release water from Lake Como and Painted Rocks.

Students also assessed the area for vegetation and erosion.

“Water is a precious resource,” Schultz told the students.

The Earth Stewardship Program began in 2004 as part of the Bitter Root Resource Conservation and Development’s Healthy Kids-Healthy Forests program. BRWF began leading the program in 2011 and it is their goal to engage youth in experiential and watershed education. BRWF is a nonprofit organization that supports agriculture, community and recreation through projects and education that protect and restore the Bitterroot watershed.

Julia Wochos, BRWF coordinator of the Earth Stewardship Program, said the goal is to get students outside.

“It’s important to get students connected to their water shed,” Wochos said. “In February I had them draw a picture of the watershed and 50 percent of them drew a small building with a bucket of water but now they grasp the meaning and importance of water.”