Bigfork High students recognized with President’s Environmental Youth Award

by Mackenzie Reiss
| May 6, 2020 1:00 AM

On Earth Day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that Bigfork High School students Colten Wroble and Ryan Cantrell are recipients of the 2020 President’s Environmental Youth Award. The students were recognized for developing a website, www.eBatsMT.com, as members of the Bigfork High School Cave Club, which helps cavers collect information on bat populations. They are among 35 students in grades K-12 who were recognized by the President’s Council on Environmental Quality and the EPA for producing an outstanding environmental project.

“I want to congratulate our friends at the Bigfork High School Cave Club for translating and a passion for conservation and the outdoors into scientific data and research that are making a difference,” said EPA Regional Administrator Gregory Sopkin. “These Montana students reflect the spirit of Earth Day and exemplify what applied environmental education is all about.”

As student members of the Bigfork High School Cave Club, junior Ryan Cantrell and sophomore Colten Wroble developed a web-based system to collect information on bat populations in caves across Montana. The data will be used to help land managers and agencies better understand and evaluate future impacts of White Nose Syndrome. This disease can have lethal effects on bats by increasing the level of energy they use during winter hibernation and has been confirmed in 33 states, quickly spreading closer to Montana.

The objective of the site is to utilize the power of citizen science to gather baseline data before White Noise Syndrome reaches Montana, Cantrell explained.

“We want the community to know what’s going on underground,” he said. “No one really knows about WNS and it’s really good to let the public know that this is an issue and something that should be worried about if we want to have bats in the future.”

Both Cantrell and Wroble noted that the award was recognition for work that went beyond their individual efforts.

“Our work being recognized really helps put the cave club out there and show all the work that we’ve done over the years,” Wroble said.

“This wouldn’t be possible without all of the other club members and everyone who’s ever been in the club. It’s a community effort that made this possible,” Cantrell added.

Club sponsor Hans Bodenhamer said the work being done by Cantrell, Wroble and other student members of the cave club is conducted in partnership with a number of agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Bodenhamer explained that the student work is valuable to these agencies, who have been subject to budget cuts and often don’t have the funding or staffing resources to complete field work in caves. In fact, the Forest Service found the Bigfork High School Cave Club’s projects so important that they have established a cost sharing agreement with the group to pay for their travel expenses for a three-year period.

“The students will go out and do projects for these people where they’re actually collecting the data which is so cool because they’re gaining all these skills in field science,” Bodenhamer said. “I just think this is such a cool model of education — instead of kids working from book, they are out doing something helpful.”

The eBatsMT website uses web applications from ArcGIS, a geographic information system, so cavers can gather and upload data while visiting caves. Cavers send a message through the website about which cave they’re planning to visit and are then given a password to unlock a map. They’ll then use an observation form to track what they see inside the cave, like the number of bats and where the animals are located. In addition to collecting valuable data, the website serves as a forum to connect cavers and cave managers, and encourages cave stewardship and bat conservation across the state.

“We’re pushing for people to go into caves,” Cantrell said. “We want people who go into them to be respectful of them.” ■

Editor Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at editor@bigforkeagle.com or (406) 758-4433.