ISLAND PARK — The Buffalo River meets the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River below Island Park Reservoir.
On a recent May day, it was the sight of a classroom.
At the junction of the rivers, there’s a fish ladder over a dam on the Buffalo River.
The ladder creates upstream passage for fish. There’s a lot of excitement at the ladder, but the swelling rush of spring run off is louder than the little voices, so you can’t hear the excitement, but you can see it.
“Lots of smiles. Lots of giggles,” said Anne Marie Emery, Henry’s Fork Foundation conservation education biologist. “Lots of oohs and aahs.”
The giggles are caused by a pile of snakes mating in the middle of the trail on the way to the fish ladder. The oohs and aahs are inspired by what the kids see at the ladder.
“If you live in New York, if you were to move here, it would be the best darn thing you would have,” said BJ Hatton, 11. “You get fresh air. You get to see animals. It’s so beautiful. I would love to be a fish.”
Trout of all sizes are trying to reach their spawning beds above the dam. The fish ladder helps them get there. The trap at the top of the dam holds the trout for a few hours so biologists can count them then send them upstream to spawn. The kids understand every step in the process from there.
“The moms bury the eggs in the gravel and they leave them. They don’t come back for the eggs,” said Taylyn Cordingley, 11. “At first, they’re called eye eggs and when they hatch, they are called alvins.”
Forty-four fifth-graders from Ashton Elementary School raised their own fish in science class through a program called Trout in the Classroom. Idaho Department of Fish and Game created the statewide program about 25 years ago. It provides fish tanks and eggs for 121 schools. The department estimates 14,400 students benefit from the science-based curriculum annually.
“We want them to understand the basics about the cycle of life and we also hope that interest will bloom and they will become fisherman,” said Mike Keckler, Idaho Department of Fish and Game chief of communication. “To us, the ultimate satisfaction comes from knowing they know the basics of fish biology and they can pick up a pole and catch a fish.”
The Henry’s Fork Foundation started funding the program for Ashton Elementary School three years ago by customizing the program to the Henry’s Fork watershed. The program costs the foundation $2,000 annually. The field trip to the fish ladder is the program’s grand finale every spring.
“There is so much in their watershed that is amazing and unique to the Henry’s Fork. Engaging them in that and tying it in with their fifth-grade curriculum and the local watershed and what they see in their backyards is huge and fun,” Emery said. “It’s hands on and that is how we engage in science and how we attract future biologists to care about the Henry’s Fork.”
Fifth-grade science teacher Matt Lyon knows his students are engaged in the program; their test scores show it.
“Since we’ve brought in Trout in the Classroom, we’ve seen our test scores jump on average over 20 percent,” he said. “Well over 80 percent of our kids reach proficiency on our science ISAT every year. Makes a big difference when you can get out into the middle of what the textbooks are talking about and make it real for the kids.”
The kids are learning, just not in the traditional textbook way so they don’t even realize the education factor. They just know it’s better than books and offer this advice: “Keep a lookout for all types of organisms even if they’re pretty small,” said Matt Huttinger, 11. “If you study them hard enough, some things that look boring are actually not.”