By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
How many species of fish, mammals and birds live in Montana? Just ask a local middle school student.
On Friday, Havre Middle School students and sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders from St. Jude Thaddeus School got a whirlwind tour of Montana wildlife, learning about everything from the 5-pound giant Pacific bullfrog in the Bitterroot River to a record-setting 139-pound paddlefish.
Their tour guide was wildlife educator Vince Yannone, who is contracted by the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to give presentations about Montana wildlife to schools and other organizations across the state.
Yannone was in Havre to speak at the Walleyes Unlimited of Montana state convention, held Friday and Saturday.
To assist him with his hourlong presentation of wildlife information and stories from a lifetime of working with animals, Yannone brought life-size replicas of Montana fish, samples of hides of wild mammals, and a large drawing pad with a marker. But his most popular educational tool was flesh and blood, an adult female bald eagle brought from Yannone's home in Clancy.
Yannone has taken care of the eagle since its wing was broken in three places 19 years ago. He is required to have a federal permit to keep the bird.
He also brought a live raven to show, but due to time constraints, the animal was not taken out.
Clad in leather gloves with gauntlets running nearly to his shoulders - a precautionary measure he has taken ever since a golden eagle sank a talon through his forearm one time - Yannone reached into one of two large pet carriers on the floor. He was greeted by a voice protesting like a rusty swing set. After a brief struggle the bird's white head emerged into the light, its dark wings draped over Yannone's arms and hanging to his knees. If the eagle's left wing had not been broken, Yannone said, its wingspan would measure 6 feet.
Yannone carried the 22-pound eagle back and forth in front of the first row of students in the HMS gymnasium. The fish-eater interrogated the cringing students with a steely drill sergeant's eye, as if trying to determine whether they might be fish.
"They see 10 times better than you and I," Yannone said.
He explained the path of pesticides from insects to fish to eagles, and then to the eagles' eggs. Chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons, used primarily as an agricultural insecticide in the United States, cause eagle eggs to become thin and break, Yannone said. One of those chemicals, DDT, was banned in this country about 32 years ago. Since then, eagle populations in Montana have rebounded, he said, but other chlorinated hydrocarbons are still used. As a result of the ban, it is not as prevalent for eagle eggs to be damaged by chlorinated hydrocarbons, but it still occurs, Yannone said.
HMS eighth-grader William Wilson, 14, was called from the front row to help Yannone display the size of the eagle's right wing. Afterward Wilson said he had seen a bald eagle from a distance before, but not up close. It made him "kind of nervous," he said.
"All these animals need four things: clean air, food, water, and a place to live," Yannone told the students. "They need habitat. Birds need that. Mammals need that. You and I need that."
The purpose of the presentations, supported by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is to raise awareness of Montana wildlife, particularly fish species, Yannone said afterward.
He talked to the students about some specific kinds of fish, and the difference between native and non-native fish. But with this large of a group, he said, some students won't care about fish, so the live birds help keep their interest.
Dave Hagengruber, a state fisheries education specialist, brought the graphite fish models from the FWP office in Helena.
"It's easy to talk about eagles and buffalo and stuff, but it's hard to talk about fish without having something to show," he said.
Hagengruber said some of Montana's most popular fish aren't native, and the department is trying to increase awareness of the ones that are. Of the state's 86 fish species, 56 are considered native.
"We're trying to get the word out that these native fish are special," Hagengruber said, adding that the majority of Montana's native fish are in central and eastern Montana. "We have fish that other places only dream about."
Friday's presentation was the largest group of students Yannone has talked to since the program started two years ago, Hagengruber said. For Hagengruber, who said he has been trying his whole career to get people excited about fish, that's good news.
"It's a long-term process," he said. "Maybe in 10 years people will realize we've got some really cool fish in Montana."
Yannone will return to the Hi-Line on May 15, when he comes to speak to Hi-Line students at Fresno Reservoir.