“I had no idea that prairie dogs are so important to the ecosystem!”
“I didn’t know that we had endangered species like the black-footed ferret living in our backyard!”
These are just a couple statements shared by participants at a recent community workshop on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. This workshop was led by me and fellow Lincoln Park Zoo colleagues Rachel Santymire, Ph.D., director of the Davee Center for Endocrinology and Epidemiology, and Katie Hawkins, student and teacher programs coordinator. It was organized with the aim of raising awareness of the importance of the Montana prairie ecosystem.
Special attention was paid to the critical role played by various species, especially prairie dogs—the architects of the prairie—and their primary predator (and endangered species), the black-footed ferret. Another goal of the workshop was to provide local teachers access to relevant content, quality instructional materials and engaging science-based activities that they can easily and effectively incorporate into their own classroom teaching.
But why Montana, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets? Why is Lincoln Park Zoo involved in this area and with these species? You might be wondering this; my colleagues, friends and family members have asked the same thing!
The answer is simple. Wildlife conservation, education and community engagement are central to the mission of Lincoln Park Zoo—not just in Africa, not just in Chicago, but anywhere we can make a difference. And Lincoln Park Zoo has an impressive history of supporting black-footed ferret conservation and research, although the average zoo visitor probably wouldn’t know it.
And this is why I tell people that I have the best career in the world! As a zoo educator, it’s my job to share these stories with others in a way that is relevant, compelling and memorable. Fortunately for me, the uplifting tale of the return of the black-footed ferret to the wild, rugged prairie landscape, makes for a really, really good story.
Lincoln Park Zoo’s Vice President for Education, Rachel Bergren is developing community-education initiatives with Montana’s Northern Cheyenne Reservation. By linking black-footed ferret recovery to teacher training and hands-on fieldwork, she’s enlisting local residents as partners in conservation.