Camps train teens to become ambassadors for wildlife, fish and nature |

Camps train teens to become ambassadors for wildlife, fish and nature

Everybody Adventures | Bob Frye
Wildlife Leadership Academy
Rose Wetzel of Pittsburgh, at right, listens to a black bear’s heartbeat with the help of Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife veterinarian Justin Brown at a Wildlfie Leadership Academy camp.

The girl who, at age 3, declared herself “queen of all snakes” is filling a bigger role these days.

Gabby Popovski is a conservation ambassador.

It’s a task she took on after passing — maybe surviving is the better word — what she described as an experience unlike any other.

Earlier this summer, the Canon-McMillan sophomore attended Bucktails, one of five camps run by the Wildlife Leadership Academy. It focused on white-tailed deer.

Oh, and insane amounts of work, too.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Popovski, who tackled plenty on the way to ranking in the top 2 percent of her class. “I’ve told friends that if they ever go, it’s going to be the hardest thing they’ve done in their life.”

The camp lasts four days. But Popovski said students were up as early as 5:30 a.m. and worked until 11 each night.

They did everything from necropsies — think autopsies — on deer to learning about habitat and why hunting is important to wildlife management to nature journaling and team-building exercises.

“I loved going out with the different equipment the professionals use and learning how it works and what it was for,” Popovski said. “It made me feel like a real ecologist.”

There was time for fun, too. Students shot bows and rifles and shotguns, for example.

The camps — the others focused on bass, brook trout, turkeys and ruffed grouse — introduce a lot of teens to such things, said Michelle Kittell, executive director of the Academy.

Over the last 10 years, they attracted students from 62 Pennsylvania counties and six other states. Some come from hunting and fishing backgrounds. Others do not.

All are challenged.

Twenty students attend each camp. They learn about biology, ecology, fish and wildlife management, natural history and more from fish and wildlife professionals, Kittell said.

But they also learn to give speeches, do presentations and otherwise practice taking what they’ve learned to larger audiences.

“The mission of the Wildlife Leadership Academy is to engage and empower high school-age youth to become conservation ambassadors to ensure a sustained wildlife, fisheries and natural resource legacy for future generations,” Kittell said.

Students are encouraged do outreach in their communities in areas ranging from education and public service to creative arts and outdoor mentorship.

It’s a lofty goal, but students are hitting the mark.

Since 2007, 469 academy graduates have done almost 3,100 conservation education projects and reached more than 45,000 people, Kittell said.

Stepping out like that isn’t always easy, said Rose Wetzel.

A 2017 graduate of Allderdice, she has been to four Academy camps in the last three years: two as a student, one as a mentor and one as an apprentice. Before her first, she was shy.

That changed, though, at a session conducted at each camp called “words of wisdom.” There, students explore famous sayings.

One quote that touched her came from John James Audubon. It says, “The woods would be silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.”

“That really reinforced for me how every voice is important. Every voice makes a difference,” Wetzel said.

The camps prepared her to use hers, she added.

“Even though the name says Wildlife Leadership Academy, people get stuck on the wildlife aspect and forget about everything else,” she said. “And that’s understandable. It is really exciting to do something like touch a bear.

“But it doesn’t matter how much you know about wildlife if you don’t feel equipped to talk about it. You’re not going to go out in the world and share what you know. That’s why I think the leadership component of the camps is so big.”

Kittell hopes all students take that to heart. The Academy succeeds, she said, when graduates are “committed to serving as spokespersons for conservation in Pennsylvania.”

There are rewards for doing such work.

The top-scoring team at each camp won a field trip to the Poconos that will include visiting a bear den, hunting pheasants and more.

Individual students, meanwhile, earn points for doing outreach. Accumulate enough, and they can attend future camps as an assistant team leader and compete for scholarships.

Popovski has been busy leading hikes and more.

“Some people are intimidated by the thought of doing outreach projects after camp, but they shouldn’t be,” Popovski said. “There’s lot of stuff you can do. And it’s fun.”

Her mother, Laura, has seen her change along the way.

“She’s always been adventurous, but this was a chance for her to be independent,” Laura Popovski said. “It’s been a great experience for her.”

It’s one Wetzel encourages others to pursue.

The camps exposed her to things she never would have seen or done in the city, she said. They helped shape her future, too.

She’s starting in the environmental studies program at Susquehanna University this fall. She might have wound up there anyway, she said. But her time at Academy camps confirmed her path.

“When I first applied, I was kind of thinking I wouldn’t even get in. But I did and my life changed,” Wetzel said.

“It’s worth it,” Popovski agreed. “It’s so worth it.”

Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-216-0193 or [email protected]. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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