PORTLAND - More Oregon students may learn first-hand about native wildlife, birds and butterflies in their own school grounds, thanks to a $745,058 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Spread over three years, the grant will pay for improvement of science education through statewide expansion of Oregon State University's 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program.

Offered through the OSU Extension Service's 4-H Youth Development Department, the 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program brings together 4-H volunteers with teachers, parents, community members and students to build a natural wildlife habitat on campus that doubles as a science laboratory.

These wildlife habitats not only become hands-on laboratories for the study of soil science, botany and ecology, they serve as an oasis of food and shelter for butterflies, birds and other small creatures. Each schoolyard habitat is different, each built with the program's motto in mind: "Caring for Our Wildlife Heritage, One School at a Time."

The 4-H Wildlife Stewards schoolyard natural areas range from simple birdbaths surrounded by native vegetation to complex wetland enhancements with interpretive signs and bird boxes. Some include a low-tech natural water treatment plant called a bioswale, a strip of vegetation planted along a parking area. Decorative and cool, these bioswales features plants that absorb storm runoff, keeping pollutants from washing off the pavement into streams and groundwater.

Maureen Hosty, an Extension faculty member at the Multnomah County office, started the 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program in 1997. It has since expanded into 46 schools in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties; eight schools in Benton County offer the 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program, as do two Linn County schools.

Each 4-H Wildlife Steward habitat project reflects the identity, creativity and hard work of the volunteers involved, Hosty said. The volunteers complete 30 hours of training, then they are required to volunteer 50 hours of instruction at a school that offers the 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program. The volunteers typically fulfill their requirements and then some.

For example, parents and volunteers enlisted help from the Oregon National Guard to create a garden isle amid the asphalt sea that surrounded Rose City Park Elementary School for 50 years. After the Guardsmen broke up the concrete and prepared the site, a local company donated topsoil. Community leaders, parents and students planted the garden.

Two years later, the site is a sort of five-star resort for local birds and butterflies that features native flowers and bushes, an in-ground birdbath, nesting boxes and a worm composting station.

The 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program receives no direct school district funding, so the $2,000 to $5,000 in start-up costs usually comes from donations and proceeds from fundraisers.

With the grant from the National Science Foundation, the 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program will be able to absorb some of the start-up costs; plan three years' worth of volunteer training; produce training manuals and instructional videos, and set up an interactive web site.

The members of a national advisory board will be selected from Vermont, Illinois, Michigan, Virginia and California to work with the National 4-H Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in developing the national 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program.

Jim Rutledge, head of the Oregon's Extension 4-H Youth Development program, said the grant offers "an excellent opportunity for Oregon 4-H to lead a national effort that could have real impact on natural resource education."

Persons interested in learning how they can participate in a 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program can contact Hosty at 503-725-2046 or at Maureen.Hosty@orst.edu

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Maureen Hosty, 503-725-2046