Wyoming Wildlife - July 2023

Camper to Colleague

The Whiskey Mountain Conservation Camp near Dubois sits along Torrey Creek and offers many learning opportunities for kids and families.

Current Wyoming Game and Fish Department employees got their start at the department's youth camps.

Chris Martin
7/1/2023 10:36:35 PM

Whiskey Mountain Conservation Camp sits at the terminus of the Torrey Valley near Dubois. The Wind River Range rises high above the cabins, some of which have been there since Charlie and Sue Beck homesteaded the area in the early 1920s. Torrey Creek meanders through the camp grounds, infusing the place with life.

This beautiful location also is the wintering grounds for the Whiskey Basin bighorn sheep herd. The valley provides forage and cover as the harsh snows of winter cover the peaks where bighorn sheep reside in the summer. As the sheep return to their alpine summer habitat, the next generation of conservationists moves into the valley below.

Since its inception with the Becks in the 1920s, Whiskey Mountain Conservation Camp has served as a classroom for those eager to learn about Wyoming’s incredible wildlife. The Becks ran the facility as a dude ranch until 1958 when they sold the property to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The camp had many caretakers in the intervening years, including the University of Wyoming and the Audubon Society. Game and Fish began to take a more active role running the camps in the 1980s. Around that time, Game and Fish started to host an event targeted at growing the future of wildlife management for Wyoming and beyond.

This camp aimed at Wyoming’s youth was cleverly titled, “Youth Camp.” The goal was to inspire young Wyomingites to become passionate and involved with wildlife and its management in their state. A team of enthusiastic educators from around the state convened at Whiskey Mountain Conservation Camp for one week and taught boys and girls archery, canoeing, firearm safety and a host of other outdoor skills. They also incorporated some elements of the work Game and Fish employees do on a regular basis. As a result, some of these boys and girls were hooked and began a career with Game and Fish.

Setting a foundation
Aaron Kerr is the staff law enforcement coordinator based in the Casper Region. Years before he ever considered taking on this position, he attended the Youth Camp. Participating in the camp in 1991 wasn’t Kerr’s first introduction to Game and Fish. His dad was a game warden, and he knew that’s what he wanted to do from a young age.

“At camp, I got to learn techniques I hadn’t seen before and build new outdoor skills,” Kerr said. “We got to run a small mammal trapline, which was really cool. The real benefit of camp is meeting people from all over the state who are interested in the same things you are. It was much easier to go outside of my comfort zone around people I knew cared about the same things I did.”

Chance Kirkeeng, Wyoming Game and Fish Department fish biologist, sorts catfish at the Game and Fish headquarters to look for aquatic invasive species before they are stocked around the state.

Chance Kirkeeng, a Game and Fish fisheries biologist in Laramie, also attended the camp before starting his career. He seconded there’s a great value of relationships built at camp.

“Once I got my first seasonal job, it gave me a level of comfort with people I had met at camp and eased the transition into working for the department,” Kirkeeng said.

Kirkeeng returned to camp the next year as a mentor. He credits the second year at camp with helping him develop relationships with people who would later become his colleagues.

Creating a blueprint
While the spirit of the camp has remained the same for decades, there have been a few tweaks to the camp's timing, format and staffing. After Whiskey Mountain Conservation Camp was remodeled in 2017, Ashley Leonard, now the Game and Fish education supervisor, took ownership of the programming and developed a new structure to run the camps, which is still used today.

“Youth Camp became one of the most rewarding aspects of running the department’s summer camps,” Leonard said. “Knowing that I was helping grow the next generation left me feeling as though I had made a real impact.”

Parker Everhart, conservation coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, instructs participants on how to safely and effectively shoot a compound bow.

The camp was split into two weeks, one for boys and one for girls. Leonard hired seasonal staff to run many of the day-to-day activities. Biologists, game wardens and other Game and Fish staff were invited as guest speakers to share how they got to where they are now and what their day-to-day jobs look like. It’s not all lectures; students still experience incredible outdoor recreation opportunities like canoeing, archery and fishing, all taught through a lens of conservation and stewardship.

Students learn about the science that guides wildlife management in Wyoming, like carrying capacity, stream health and skull morphology. Wildlife managers teach students about the skills and tools they use daily to collect wildlife data. Campers help reel in gill nets and record fish data alongside fish biologists and learn from wildlife biologists about tracking collars and telemetry devices. They have the opportunity to have lunch with a game warden and hear what goes into protecting Wyoming’s wildlife. These experiences expose the campers to the idea that the things they like to do now — hiking, playing in a stream and exploring the outdoors — could become a part of their career.

Continued growth
Leonard also planted the seeds of a program getting its start this year. The Assistant Conservation Educators program gives campers the opportunity to return to camp as a mentor and provides another step for students who wish to have a career in the outdoors.

The idea behind the program was familiar; Kirkeeng participated in a similar program as a mentor when he was at camp. In the ACE program, camp staff and department guest speakers select the ACE candidates to return to camp in a mentor role. Candidates meet with the conservation education coordinator to discuss interest in the program, career goals and next steps.

This year there will be three ACE participants at Youth Camps. These students also have the opportunity to assist at the Family Camps — providing a chance for participants to teach adults. The experience these former campers will bring to their peers will be invaluable in creating a culture of discovery and innovation at camp. The goal is to eventually expand this program to eight ACE participants.

Campers receive numerous lessons on ways to enjoy the outdoors, such as how to safely paddle a canoe down a stream.

Another change this year is a required application for all campers. In the past, these camps have been first-come, first-served opportunities. This application ensures that there is a chance to select campers who will grow from this unique experience and have a strong interest in the outdoors and wildlife. The application features an essay question asking potential campers what they hope to gain from camp. Some common themes among this year’s applications were gaining new skills, learning new things and meeting new people who share the same interests. It is remarkable how these responses match the responses from Kerr and Kirkeeng about the most valuable aspects of camp. While much has changed since the inception of the camp, the value of learning conservation principles among like-minded peers will continue to be a pillar in perpetuity.

Many of Wyoming’s youth have spent a week of their summer at Whiskey Mountain Conservation Camp. Although historical records don’t document an exact number of camp goers over the decades, we know 99 unique campers have benefitted from Youth Camps at Whiskey Mountain Conservation Camp since it was remodeled in 2017. Many of those 99 attended more than once, and 35 more campers will join the ranks of camp attendees this year. These campers have the potential to become the future of conservation in Wyoming and across the country.

One of the many fun activities at the Whiskey Mountain Conservation Camp is fly-fishing.

It is crucial we continue to emphasize education and instill solid, grounded conservation values in our leaders of tomorrow. We have no idea who these students will grow up to be. There are potential game wardens, biologists and conservation educators attending camp this year, or possibly a future Game and Fish director. The stories of current employees who got their start at the youth camp should serve as an inspiration for all future campers.

— Parker Everhart is the conservation education coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.


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