Two hundred 4-H teenagers and their coaches from 30 states will pour into Virginia Tech Thursday, July 28 to Aug. 1 to compete in an annual national wildlife habitat evaluation contest.

The students won their states' contests and will use skills they have learned through their local 4-H Wildlife Habitat Evaluation Program (WHEP) training to compete in the national competition.

Virginia's team won the competition in 2002. Later the state, for the first time, also captured the honor of hosting the event this year. The actual competition site will be in the Jefferson National Forest near Virginia Tech's campus. WHEP is the flagship wildlife education program for Cooperative Extension and land-grant universities.

Contestants must judge the suitability of habitat for wildlife species through on-site evaluation, aerial photographs, and wildlife foods identification. Each state team must write an urban and rural wildlife management plan for nine wildlife and fish species.

The teams will go through a trial run Thursday, and on Friday will be taken to the competition site for the real competition. On Saturday, while the judges sift through the plans, the 4-H members will enjoy natural resource activities at Mountain Lake, the Cascades, and Jefferson National Forest such as canoeing the New River, swimming, horseback riding, fishing, caving, rock climbing, hiking, birding, and range shooting.

"I think the most unique part of the competition is the analysis of aerial photographs of the surrounding land," said Jeff Kirwan, associate professor of forestry in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech and Extension specialist for natural resources education, who is one of the coordinators for this year's conference. "Each team is presented with four different aerial maps and a species. The kids must use the maps to rank the best habitat for the given species."

The contest is divided into five different parts: identifying wildlife foods; judging wildlife habitat from aerial photographs; prescribing wildlife management practices on a given site; developing an urban management plan for selected species; and developing a rural management plan for selected species. The competition includes both individual and group events.

Co-chairs of the Virginia 4-H WHEP Committee are Ann Gallus, 4-H volunteer in Loudoun County, and Jennifer Mercer, Extension agent for 4-H in Augusta County. The national contest is sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, International Paper, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the National Rifle Association, various corporations, and many local agencies including the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation, Izaak Walton League, James City/County 4-H Clubs, Montgomery, Giles, Loudoun and other county board of supervisors.

WHEP is a 4 H youth natural resource program dedicated to teaching wildlife and fisheries habitat management to junior and senior level (ages 8 to 19) youth in the United States. Youth learn the science of wildlife management and gain skills in oral and written communication, critical thinking and decision making, while participating in an activity that encourages observation of detail. They develop their leadership potential and learn about sportsmanship and working together as a team.

"The ultimate goal of WHEP is to teach our nation's youth how to be wise stewards of our wildlife and fisheries resources," Mercer said. The kids are given real-world situations and work together to provide solutions to natural resource problems that managers face."

"The kids who participate in WHEP eventually become productive members of society who know how to create better habitat for wildlife and fish, no matter what professional field they have chosen," Gallus added.