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Wildlife around the globe has suffered devastating hits through the past few decades. But at UNM, people are fighting to ensure that the state’s wildest creatures not only survive, but thrive. Wild Friends, a program of the Center for Wildlife Law at the UNM School of Law's Institute of Public Law, works with students in grades 4 through 12, integrating wildlife science, civics education, youth leadership training, mentoring, scientific and policy research, writing, public speaking and field trips. Currently, Wild Friends serves 1,000 students in 18 schools throughout New Mexico. Most of the Albuquerque participants are eligible for free-lunch programs and are from minority backgrounds.
Wild Friends offers students and their teachers a powerful educational opportunity: to collaborate with nonprofits, state agencies and mentors on projects that make a difference in the natural world. Every year, students vote by ballot for a project to pursue that is related to public policy in an area of wildlife conservation. They then engage in related activities daily and weekly, guided by their teachers in classrooms and after-school clubs.
Students study wildlife species, habitat, populations, adaptability, interactions with human beings and other program-related topics. The interdisciplinary approach to learning makes topics more relevant to students’ lives and helps students understand the interdependence of all creatures and environments.
Equally important is Wild Friends’ emphasis on youth. The program teaches students at a young age to see themselves as valuable players in the environment’s local and global health. Consequently, these kids are more likely to develop a lifelong appreciation of, and respect for, nature.
One notable example of a Wild Friends project led to state legislative action to protect New Mexico’s wildlife from collisions with vehicles. In 2003, the students worked with wildlife biologists, habitat specialists, highway engineers and transportation and safety officials, as well as teachers, legal educators and mentors, study the problem of wildlife-vehicle collisions and find possible solutions. They used their findings to draft legislation. They met with policymakers, wrote letters, testified before legislative committees and spoke at press conferences and at a meeting attended by state, national and international professionals and policymakers.
As a result, in 2004 the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division for the first time included information on “Driving with Wildlife in Mind” in the state driver’s manual. The New Mexico Department of Transportation and the Game and Fish Department have cooperated to develop wildlife crossings on I-40 east of Albuquerque, previously a collision hot spot, by creating safe passages underneath the highway and funneling wildlife to those passages with fencing. Since then, wildlife-vehicle collisions in that area have decreased significantly.
Wild Friends makes a difference in the lives of its young participants too. Since the program’s inception in 1991, more than10,000 students have participated in a host of Wild Friends activities, including classroom wildlife education and live animal presentations, annual Wildlife Summits, on-site zoo programs, field trips to nature centers and wildlife refuges, educational programs at state universities and the state Legislature, legislative drafting, student-produced art, dances and plays, educational puppetry and internships. Demand for the program increases each year, and its teacher and student retention rate is excellent.
Some of the nonprofit organizations and government agencies Wild Friends joins forces with include the Albuquerque Biological Park, the Environmental Education Association of New Mexico, New Mexico Game and Fish Department, Hawks Aloft, State Parks, the State Land Office and Wildlife West Nature Park. These organizations provide materials, speakers, presentations and field trips. In addition, state legislators and officials have shown consistent support for the program and have provided opportunities for students to meet policymakers, speak at public meetings and testify before legislative committees.
A three-year startup grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation gave Wild Friends its wings. PNM Corporate Giving has been a loyal supporter since 1992. Other generous grants have come from the Dorr Foundation, the Francis V.R. Seebe Charitable Trust, and the Mumford Family Foundation.
The Center for Civic Values (CCV) has supported Wild Friends since 2005 with grants that allow the program to rent school buses for field trips. CCV provides education and resources to encourage public participation in the law. When Wild Friends approached CCV with a request for support, Michelle Giger, CCV’s president and CEO, thought the two organizations were a good fit.
“The activities these kids are engaging in — getting face-to-face with legislators, taking an active role in their own governance — are things that our organization supports,” says Giger. “These students are modeling what every single one of us ought to do during every legislative session. And they’re doing a really good job of it. They’re very organized, and their causes are thoughtful, mainstream and beneficial to all citizens in New Mexico. They’re going to remember this experience into adulthood, and it may even influence how they go forward in life.”
Since the mid-1990s, the state Legislature has provided annual appropriations to Wild Friends. The program expanded two years ago with additional legislative funding: it began serving larger numbers of students and providing more educational outreach to schools. However, Wild Friends’ funding has decreased as the Legislature and other grant-making organizations have slashed their budgets, and without funds to make up that difference, Wild Friends will be unable to maintain its efforts at current levels. In 2008, Wild Friends hired a part-time science educator and received permission from UNM to request an increase in its state appropriation to make the position permanent. Because of legislative spending cuts, Wild Friends was forced to terminate the position at the end of March 2009.
Staff consists of only one full-time employee and two part-time employees. Program Director Carolyn Byers dreams of being able to hire a permanent, full-time science educator. But without additional funding, that dream won’t come true, and Wild Friends will have to decrease staff travel to schools and field trips to the state capitol.
Individuals or organizations interested in supporting Wild Friends’ science education program should contact Hannah Farrington, director of development at the UNM School of Law, at 505.277.1038 or .
By Michelle G. McRuiz. Reprinted with permission by the UNM Foundation.