Outside the classroom

Deb Conway helps manage Butte College’s lesser-known learning environment

Deb Conway

Deb Conway

Photo By Ryan van Fleet

Butte College, California’s largest community college in terms of acreage, is not only a place of higher learning. For hundreds of animals and plant species, it’s home.

The college was founded in 1968, and its main campus on 928 acres between Chico and Oroville was established as a wildlife refuge just five years later.

Deb Conway is the resident expert on the refuge at Butte College, where she has worked for 18 years in the Agriculture Department as a farm technician. Before taking a position at Butte, she spent 10 years working for the ag department at Shasta College, where she had attended classes. She now works with students and is partly responsible for keeping the refuge such a beautiful place.

“We consider the wildlife refuge an outdoor classroom, critical to the education of our biology, agriculture and natural resource students,” Conway said. Agriculture students get hands-on experience working around wildlife. While learning, they also help maintain the landscape.

As Conway explained, there are plenty of activities and opportunities for students—and the public—to get involved in Butte’s refuge.

Because of all the wildlife and its habitat, Butte College is a great place for hiking. Trails are accessible to the public via the horse arena parking lot, which is near the Clark Road entrance. Along the pathways are signs that give information about trees, native species, shrubs and wildflowers. Wandering off the designated trails is not recommended for safety reasons. A map showing the entrance points to these trails can be found here.

Wildlife observation
Black-tailed deer, foxes, coyotes, turkeys, raccoons, pheasants, quail and squirrels are often seen on campus. Other animals occasionally seen at Butte include skunks, snakes, ringtail cats, river otters, bats and even mountain lions. More than 150 different species of birds have been spotted on the refuge, making the campus a great place for bird watching.

Enjoying the habitat
According to Butte’s Web site, there are more than 320 different plant species on campus. Some of these are grasslands, some are wetlands, and some are woodlands. There are also areas of farmland and forest. The farmland includes a 10-acre wine grape vineyard.

The natural habitat in and around Butte’s campus is taken care of by students, staff and animals alike. One thing the school is working on is trying to be more involved in controlled grazing, a practice it has followed for 12 years.

“We are going through administration to try to get about 20 of our own cattle for planned grazing to improve the refuge and give hands-on experience to our agriculture students,” Conway said.

The program is designed by the Agriculture Department, along with groups such as Friends of the Wildlife Refuge, to make the campus safe and habitable for the many species of plants and animals. Conway, too, has worked hard to ensure that the animals, wildlife and vegetation are well taken care of.

Photo By Ryan van Fleet

Getting involved
Some groups, such as Friends of the Wildlife Refuge, are dedicated to the restoration of the refuge. They have weekly hikes and meetings, and anyone is welcome to join them.

There is also an internship program that allows students to sign up for work experience and get paid to work on the farm or refuge. Those who take on work at the farm also take part in projects that need attention on the refuge. For example, landscaping, such as marshes and ponds, is still being added.

The environmental horticulture club also benefits from Butte’s refuge. The club’s members get hands-on experience by being able to see plants in their mature form for future identification. They also re-grow native plants that might have been damaged or lost. l