For more than 40 years, the Wildlife Habitat Education Program (WHEP) has been fostering future stewards of the nation’s abundant natural resources. WHEP is a 4-H and FFA youth natural resource program dedicated to teaching wildlife and fisheries habitat management to young people.
What began as a state contest in Tennessee to offer new opportunities to 4-H members has grown into a national program that provides opportunities, not just for 4-H, but FFA as well.
Craig Harper, a University of Tennessee Extension wildlife specialist, said two colleagues, Jim Byford and Tom Hill, wanted to create a program that mimicked the popular livestock judging program.
“You can’t judge a deer like you can a steer, but you can judge the land and habitats for wildlife,” said Harper. “And that’s how it all got started in 1978.”
While programs vary some among states, the program—at its core— teaches wildlife management fundamentals, fosters team building and develops leadership skills. Although WHEP is a competitive event, its primary purpose is to increase participant’s knowledge of wildlife management while promoting life skills.
What Participants are Taught
- Wildlife terms and concepts
- Wildlife habitats
- Wildlife habitat management practices
- Wildlife damage management
- How to judge the quality of wildlife habitats
The Wildlife Society, the only professional organization certifying wildlife biologists nationally, recognized the quality of the WHEP program early on and awarded it their Conservation Education award in 1996.
Each state holds an annual contest where teams of three to four similarly aged individuals work together to tackle each element of the contest. The winning senior (14-19 years of age) WHEP team from each state earns the right to attend the annual National WHEP Contest.
While WHEP has traditionally been a hands-on environmental education program, the pandemic did not shutter the program. Extension professionals and ag teachers made the shift to a virtual environment, and a team of South Carolina 4-H club members won the 2021 Virtual National WHEP Contest.
Mallory Maher, a Clemson Extension 4-H agent, said going virtual helped keep young people connected to the program.
“We would rather be outdoors together, but it was important that we not let the pandemic shut the program down,” Maher said. “We utilized programs like Zoom and Kahoot to bring teams together, but we also relied heavily on members and their personal commitment to doing a lot of the work solo from home.”
She added that COVID expanded the program in some ways.
“COVID allowed us to reach new audiences,” she said. “The national winning team was completely new, not only to WHEP but to 4-H as well. Thanks to that team’s success and their interest, a new 4-H Club was formed at their high school, bringing in new participants.”
Maher and Harper agree that the program can literally change the course of participants’ lives.
“We definitely see young people choosing to study wildlife science in college and to pursue wildlife related careers after being a part of WHEP,” Harper said. “Students are exposed to content and materials that they are not likely to get in school.”
One of Maher’s South Carolina team members sees a connection between her career interests and WHEP.
“I decided to participate because of my interest in environmental studies and how it would help me decide what I'd like to study in college,” said Emma Garrett, a sophomore at Laurens High School.
The National WHEP Contest returns to in-person competition July 31 – August 3 in London, Kentucky.