Wildlife Biology students gain experience through camping trip

by MALLORY CARVER/Feature Editor

Three days of desert camping with 14 college students is not something any average professor would sign up for.

From March 10 – March 13, four exceptional professors at South Plains College volunteered to take a group of students on an educational journey to Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, near Marathon, Texas.

David Etheredge, biology professor, began bringing his Wildlife Biology class on two trips every spring semester in 1990. His enthusiasm was contagious, and his patience with his students is admirable to everyone who went on the trip.

“I don’t know how Mr. E puts up with so many students,” says Dallas Quintanilla, a biology major who went on the trip. “I had him last semester, and he’s the reason I wanted to take Wildlife Biology.”

Jon Marc Moore, chairperson of Physical Education Department, Dr. Megan Keith, instructor in biology, and Leanna Smith, a retired professor of biology, were all eager to help Etheredge oversee all the students through four days with limited technology in a harsh environment.

The purpose of the trip was to give experience to students who are hoping to pursue a career in Wildlife Management. Students were given the opportunity to speak to the biologists who work at Black Gap.

“I have had to turn some professors down who wanted to join us before,” says Etheredge. “I didn’t want to turn this into a teacher trip, because for me, it’s all about the students.”

The professors who Etheredge asked to join him all brought something invaluable to the table—from expertise in species identification to first aid training.

The professors showed the class how to set traps for animals and educated them on the rules of trapping and collecting species. The class was able to catch and identify multiple species, including a variety of rodents, bats, and reptiles.

Etheredge directing

Every day, the students would load up on the trailer pulled by the old SPC pickup, and travel around the rough roads of the desert. While on the trailer, students learned about all sorts of cacti and thorns, which often ended up in the skin of unlucky students.

Smith, the bird expert who recently retired from SPC, was able to assist everyone in identifying all sorts of birds.

Moore, who has been on previous trips with the class, entertained everyone at camp with his guitar. He covered several songs, and even performed two of his own original songs, “Paso Lajitas”, and “Take Me Back to Black Gap.” Etheredge says that he felt safer having Moore, who teaches first aid courses at SPC, to look out for everyone. Moore was a huge help to everyone, and even drove half the class the six hours to the campsite. Despite not being a biology professor, Moore was able to offer a lot of knowledge about traps and the area that was explored by the students.

Dr. Keith joined the class on the trip for the first time, and drove the other half of the class on the long road to Black Gap. She is an expert when it comes to naming species, and she has a lot of experience with wildlife trips.

On March 11, the students and professors spent a morning outside in a constant drizzle of rain. Soaked to the bone, the students were nervous about the weather forecast for the remaining days, says Quintanilla.

“The cold weather definitely dampened the day a little,” says Quintanilla. “But no one let it get them too down. It gave us a reason to keep moving, and the desert was beautiful in that weather.”

All the professors who went were enthusiastic about the trip and not only skilled at wildlife management, but skilled at college student management. The students were provided with delicious food three times a day, and there was an unlimited amount of snacks. They made the trip go smoothly, and the students all recognized their effort and were thankful.

All the students left Black Gap feeling accomplished and pleased with their newfound experience.

On March 12, the rain had cleared up. Eager for a bit of sun, students lathered on sunscreen, packed their lunches, and loaded into the college vehicles to head to the Rio Grande. No one had showered in two days of hard work and dust, so everyone was ready for a dip in the river. Because of Etheredge’s permit, some students were allowed to fish, while the rest of them sunbathed on river rocks and played in the chilly water.

The camping trip gave students an incredible opportunity to experience wildlife biology and make new, interesting friends. Quintanilla says that he wasn’t ready to leave Black Gap, even though he really looked forward to a shower.

The students returned home on March 13 with a car-full of rodents and reptiles.

The students in the biology class are not done with their adventures in the wild, as they are looking forward to another trip to East Texas in late April.

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