Community Wildlife Management Workshops

Youth Education: Three Decades as a Volunteer

By: Greg Balch

I teach Wildlife Ecology Education Workshops, which focus on discussions centered around the science of the food web, species-specific relationships, biodiversity, the function of compensatory production, and our place in it all. I have found that the adults attending the workshops learn as much, or more than the children.

In 1990, I had never stood in front of a classroom full of kids. That fall, I attended six Kindergarten classes to teach about my passion for waterfowl hunting in a school in London, Ontario. My daughter Sarah was attending kindergarten and wanted to bring in some duck wings to show the class. Not wanting to offend these city folk, I asked her teacher if it would be all right. Sarah’s teacher asked me if I knew much about waterfowl and my reply was “what would you like to know?” Her teacher, in turn, asked if I could do a twenty-minute talk on ducks and geese. That first presentation went great, with a return trip to speak to the p.m. classes.

At the time I had no idea that teaching would become a large part of my life. Back then I brought in a handful of duck wings and some posters I made up to teach children about ducks and geese. That year I spoke to 150 children. Today, I carry more than 120 Wildlife mounts of birds and mammals, including furbearers, deer, waterfowl, upland game birds, and birds of prey, and have been invited to speak in many places throughout Canada. In 2018, I addressed more than 13,000 people and have spoken to more than 165,000 people over the life of the program.

I got started down this path when I was very young. My father was a hunter, just like his father. Growing up in the town of Merrickville, Ontario, my Father observed many food shortages during WWII, with the most affordable meat being bologna, at five cents per pound. There was one alternative to feed a family. Hunting and fishing was a part of life for his family. Wild meat was a staple that no one gave a second thought to. After my grandpa got too sick to work in 1941 due to complications arising from his service in WW1, my dad started feeding his family with wild game starting at the age of 12.

As his son, I was raised in the same fashion. I can’t remember when I first handled wild game. At the age of eight, my dad took me duck hunting to Rondeau Provincial Park. Can you imagine what the world looked like to an eight-year-old, as I paddled a canoe alone at 5:30 on a December morning, setting decoys, while my dad stood on the shore with the flashlight telling me where to put the blocks? After my first hunting trip, dad would come home with a bunch of ducks, hand them to me and say “clean ‘em up”, and at night I would oil his gun. The fire had been lit inside me and I couldn’t get enough of it.

When my family arrived from Ireland in 1819, they had to clear the land on their farm in the Ottawa valley, and wild meat was an important staple in their diet. They couldn’t just go to the grocery store and get what they needed, so they had to produce what they needed themselves. When my daughter Sarah was born in 1985, I was determined to carry on my family heritage and teach my children the truth about hunting and fishing. In November 1986, I took my dad to Rondeau for our final hunt together. In January 1987, my son Sean was born. Three months later, after holding Sean only once, my father lost his battle with cancer.

In 1993, a fellow employee at London Transit and a member of the Wellington Street Sportsmen’s Club in Dorchester, Ontario, heard that I had spoken in schools on occasion. I was asked if I would be interested in joining the club to do conservation work and try my hand at being the club’s representative at local schools. I started collecting mounted animals, furs, skulls, and antlers. In 1996, I became a Professional Trapper, and at that point my education in wildlife and wildlife management really started. The knowledge that trappers possess of animals and their habitat is mind-boggling. Right then I had found a way to pass on what I had received from my dad, not only to my children but to the children in the London area as well as to the rest of Ontario.

29 years later, I found myself invited to Nova Scotia by Terry Smith, President of the Canadian Wild Turkey Federation (CWTF). Last spring I travelled 11,000 kilometers over the course of two weeks to teach 2,700 people at nine schools and two community groups in Nova Scotia. Travel was funded by the Habitat Conservation Fund of Nova Scotia. In March of 2018, I hooked up the trailer and my buddy Dennis and I headed for Cape Breton. It was the beginning of an adventure that I won’t soon forget. On Monday, March 19th we set up at Riverside Elementary School in Albert Bridge, assisted by Jeff McNeil and his band of volunteers, Stan, Darren, and Sam, to name a few. We also attended schools in Glace Bay, River Ryan, Whycocomagh, Membertou, Antigonish, Windsor Forks, and Bridgewater. 36 presentations and 2,700 people later we returned to Ontario. Plans are now in the works for our return, tentatively set for April of 2020.
I don’t advertise but people hear of me through word-of-mouth and by meeting me when I speak. I have been invited to many places in Canada to speak and would be willing to go if it was not for the staggering cost of transportation and accommodations. If it wasn’t for backing from the Nova Scotia Federation of Anglers and Hunters, the Canadian Wild Turkey Federation, and funding from Nova Scotia Habitat Conservation Fund, I would not have been able to afford to travel to Nova Scotia.

For the first 10 years, I financed the program at my own expense. While I have invested thousands of dollars in my program, finding other sources of funding seemed to be almost impossible. The Wellington St. Sportsman’s Club and the Aylmer District Trapper’s Council were the first groups to make funding available. This was followed by the Community Fish and Wildlife Improvement Program and the Protection and Enhancement Fund of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. When that funding was no longer available, Zone J of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and the Ontario Provincial Board of the National Wild Turkey Federation stepped up to provide funding.

Today, while I receive donations from other groups, Zone J of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, the Canadian Wild Turkey Federation, the Wellington St. Sportsman’s Club, and the Aylmer District Trapper’s Council provide most of the funding to maintain the display and most recently purchase a new trailer to carry it in. Without this backing, I would be dead in the water. The ultimate goal would be to find a corporate sponsor for the program, but I’m still unsure as to how to go about finding one.

The recognition has been great too! In 2014, I was elected to the College of Fellows of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. I have also received 14 awards, of which 8 are major awards from local, provincial, national and North American organizations.

On February 8th 2018, I was informed that I had been awarded the “Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers” by Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada. An official Canadian honour, this medal recognizes exceptional volunteer achievements from across the country and abroad in a wide range of fields.

I don’t think I can do much better than that, but the future looks good. I’ll keep building the program and hope that I can acquire funding to complete the display. Until then, we carry on as we have for the last 29 years.