CROSSVILLE, Tenn. – A flock of buzzards erupted out of the corn field, massive wings carrying them reluctantly away from their bounty.
“That must be the spot,” said one youngster trudging into the corn.
Quickly a foul odor confirmed the suspicion.
“Hey guys. It’s over here,” exclaimed Leroy Gonzales, a senior from New Mexico Highlands University.
The college kids soon found the carcass of a wild hog laying among the trampled corn stalks – the latest victim of what Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologists are calling, “The Hog Wars.”
These college students were on a field trip to the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area, Ground Zero of the hog wars. TWRA Wildlife Manager Casey Mullen shot and killed the wild boar two days before as it was in the process of rooting up and decimating the Catoosa WMA cornfield. The lesson for the day was to teach these future wildlife and natural resource professionals about TWRA’s efforts to control a growing population of destructive wild hogs across the state.
But that’s not the story.
This story is really about the Student Wildlands Adventure Program, SWAP for short.
SWAP is the brainchild of Cleveland State University wildlife professor Robert Brewer and Daryl Ratajczak, the former TWRA Chief of Wildlife, now working for the U.S. Forest Service in New Mexico.
Brewer and Ratajczak basically created an exchange program, now in its second year. Last year Brewer’s Wildlife Society students from Cleveland State visited New Mexico. This year they reversed the process, bringing eighteen natural resource college students from New Mexico to visit Tennessee for a week.
“Last year all of Robert’s students already knew each other,” said Ratajczak. “But the New Mexico students had never met each other until they walked off their planes in Tennessee. It’s been amazing watching them bond with each other. And it’s so awesome to see some of Robert’s [Cleveland State] students who went to New Mexico last year now get to serve as hosts. They’re so proud to show off the State of Tennessee.”
It is a horizon-broadening exercise and a sharing of cultures, all with wildlife and conservation as the primary focus.
“We’re teaching youth not just how to make a living but how to make a difference,” said Ratajczak. “We’re giving them something that is going to make a difference in their community and in their life.”
The road trip to Catoosa WMA was just one of a weeklong whirlwind of outdoor activities the young men and women from New Mexico experienced. But what they all seemed to be most impressed by was Tennessee’s trees and water.
“Lots of green – green, green, green everywhere,” exclaimed Charlene Juanico who grew up in a New Mexico desert.
I interviewed Charlene standing alongside Daddy’s Creek, a pristine stream that slices through the lush Catoosa WMA ridges on the Cumberland Plateau. Guided by Fisheries Biologist Mark Thurman and other TWRA folks, the youngsters swam and snorkeled in the cool water – a luxury rarely afforded in their home state.
“In New Mexico we would visit a stream that would have five species of fish,” said Brewer. “Visit a similar stream here and we have fifty species of fish.”
“It’s been really funny this week,” said Ratajczak. “You know we’ve had some rain and whenever the rain starts all the Tennessee students run for cover. But the kids from New Mexico don’t move. They just want to stand out there in it, basking in the rain.”
“It’s really beautiful,” said Leroy Gonzales. “Coming from New Mexico where you don’t have too much water and here, pretty much the opposite. There’s water, rivers and lakes everywhere. It’s quite beautiful.”
Gonzales clearly enjoyed his tour of Catoosa learning about TWRA’s efforts to control wild hogs.
“Hogs are becoming a problem in southwest New Mexico,” he said. “So it’s definitely good to see how they’re trying to control them here.”
But the details of each day’s wildlife education paled in comparison to the overall experience, at least for Charlene, a junior wildlife conservation major at New Mexico State University.
“It just opens up my mind even more,” she said with gleaming eyes and a voice exuding excitement and enthusiasm. “I hope to go home and help protect the land and the environment as well as the wildlife. I’m just like super excited to go back home and tell all my little cousins what I’ve seen and learned here. It’s just been amazing.”
Sometimes the education comes in unexpected places and unexpected ways.
“I was standing outside one night and one of the students walked out and said, ‘What are those bugs that shoot lightening out of their butts,” said Ratajczak with a smile. “They had never seen lightening bugs.”
Of course the program doesn’t come cheap.
“A lot of the New Mexico students this year come from Indian reservations and pueblos in northern New Mexico,” said Ratajczak. “They’re very, very rural. They don’t have the advantages of some of the bigger cities and universities.”
But he and Brewer have beaten the bushes so that the youngsters chosen to participate haven’t had to pay a dime. Last year Brewer received a grant from Cleveland State. This year Ratajczak’s employer, the U.S. Forest Service provided a grant for the New Mexico youngsters.
“Of course there are still other major expenses,” said Brewer. “But so many people have been willing to help. Between friends of Daryl and me, we’ve collected all the additional money, more than $4,000, to pay for all the food and other expenses. We’ve had donations from $10 all the way up to $500.”
The future of SWAP is up in the air. Ratajczak and Brewer say it is always dependent upon finding one major benefactor. They don’t want the youngsters to have to pay for the cross-country program. You can rest assured, however, the two wildlifers will be out beating the bushes once again so they can continue to SWAP in the future.