- Associated Press - Saturday, March 4, 2017

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) - It takes Sam Duncan a few moments to fully process what he’s just been told - that the size and number of points on deer and elk antlers has little to do with the age of the animal.

Nutrition and genetics play a larger role.

“It’s like that every meeting,” said the Moscow, Idaho, man. “You learn something that just blows you away. I always thought points were age and it’s genetics, which is pretty damn interesting.”

Duncan is a member of the Lewis and Clark chapter of the Idaho Master Naturalist program, and for the past two years has been attending bimonthly meetings at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game office in Lewiston with about 20 other people. The meeting that blew his mind focused on teaching the naturalists how to determine the age of deer and elk by inspecting the teeth in recovered jaw bones. Other meetings covered subjects like tree identification, ornithology, geology, local flora and fauna, fisheries and aquatic ecology.

Modeled after master gardeners, the master naturalist program seeks to train a corps of nature-loving citizens who can both serve as a source of information to other people and work in a volunteer capacity alongside land managers and scientists to care for the natural world.

The program traces its roots to a 1994 effort at Fort Collins, Colorado, to care for open, natural spaces around the town. From there it spread and evolved. Today, there are master naturalist programs in 26 states. Idaho’s first chapter formed in 2008, said Sara Focht, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game employee who oversees the state’s master naturalist program. The Lewiston-based Lewis and Clark chapter formed two years ago.

“In a nutshell, participants are asked to come to 40 hours of education provided by various agencies and people and they are asked to donate 40 hours of volunteer work in a year,” Focht said. “That certifies them as Idaho master naturalists and many people come back year after year and continue doing their 40 hours of service every year.”

Volunteer opportunities are almost as diverse as the specialized areas of study, but the program steers participants to focus on educating others about nature or to become citizen scientists who help collect data for working scientists. Since its inception in Idaho, Focht said the master naturalist program has tallied more than 100,000 volunteer hours with an estimated value of $1.5 million for local, state and federal agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Dave Eberle, a Clarkston school teacher and retired Army engineer, and Steve Ford, a landscaper from Genesee, spent a week on the Lolo Motorway assessing the condition of the remote road for the U.S. Forest Service. Steve Ullrich, a retired Washington State University barley breeder and plant scientist, has led nature walks on Paradise Ridge near his home outside of Moscow, and worked at Dworshak National Fish Hatchery and Rapid River Hatchery. Ford has volunteered for the University of Montana’s Wilderness Institute. Ullrich and others have worked with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s steelhead in the classroom program.

Sandy Duncan of Moscow is the chapter president and said she prefers to roll up her sleeves and help professional scientists and habitat managers carry out their research.

“I’m interested in citizen science,” she said. “It’s a great portal to all these projects going on out there; it’s been kind of a door way for me to find these projects.”

Eberle plans to volunteer time to fix up a dilapidated fire lookout on the Nez Perce National Forest this summer and likes the idea of volunteering.

“It encourages me to get outdoors more,” he said.

Ullrich said the key to volunteering is to pick a subject that seems more like fun than work.

“You have to be interested,” he said, but added it’s not difficult for him to find appealing opportunities. “I just have a broad interest in the out-of-doors.”

Ford boiled it down even more.

“I’m just here to have fun,” he said.

Learning about nature and spending time with other people who love to be outside and love to learn is a big draw for many people in the program, Focht said.

“It’s club-like, it’s camaraderie, it’s friendship. There are a lot of nice, great people who are like-minded and get together,” she said. “The social aspect wasn’t part of the plan, but the group of people is just really fun.”

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Information from: Lewiston Tribune, https://www.lmtribune.com


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