Southwest Elementary School students are helping bring the OWLS area back to life on the west side of Southwest.

The rebirth of a wildlife area at Southwest Elementary School is underway thanks to efforts of the students at the school and others who have donated time and materials for the project.

Under the guidance of Lu Bitter, USD 382 science coordinator, the Outdoor Wildlife Learning Site is undergoing a transformation that will help bring it back to the way it once was when it was at its best.

About 400 students in grades K-4 are involved in the process. Classes worked two at a time for about 30 minutes each on several marked off areas.

An OWLS committee has been formed to oversee the project. Bitter is working with Jennifer Inslee and with Master Gardeners Janel Mead and Judy Lee to determine what plants need to be used. Concrete Enterprises has donated rocks to make a path for the site and the USD 382 maintenance crew has spent a lot of time picking up piles of branches.

A couple of AmeriCorps students, Lexi Lanterman and Luz Acosta worked on the area in March, April and May. The helped trim and take out trees. They also helped install water pipes for the area and added animal tracks to the sidewalks.

"This is a group effort. A lot of people have helped us," Bitter said.

For years, nothing was done to the OWLS location on the west side of Southwest Elementary property. It had become so overrun, when cleanup began, sidewalk and benches were discovered that no one knew were there. Brome grass took over the site and the native grasses so Bitter has worked to get rid of it and re-establish the grasses and flowering plants that were originally on the prairie, Bitter said.

Another issue at the OWLS location is vandalism. The AmeriCorps students discovered an in-ground bird bath for watering birds and squirrels and it had been smashed to bits. A bridge had been reduced to its support posts and benches had been taken apart.

Hopefully, since the students are doing the work, they will tell others about the project and it will help reduce or eliminate the vandalism.

On Sept. 29, Southwest students got their hands dirty and helped plant grass and "forbs" that would were part of flora on the Kansas prairie. Forbs are flowering plants that are not grasses but flourished on the prairie. Some were used for food and medicine and were a vital part of the prairie.

Students planted six varieties of grass that were on the prairie and were healthy food for bison and cattle.

As part of the restoration project, Brad Guhr, education coordinator for Dyck Arboretum of the Plains at Hesston, came to campus and described to the students how the Native Americans and the pioneers used the plants to feed their livestock, provide food for people and used some plants for treating medical problems.

Some of the plants produce nitrogen in the roots that is very important to the health of plant life. But some of those plants are gone and need to be restarted.

Guhr told the students the prairie was an important part of the culture and history of the Native Americans and the pioneers. It provided necessary supplies much like people today would go to a hardware store, grocery store or pharmacy.

Some prairie flowers were vital for pollination. The plants aided wildlife diversity and helped support animals, birds, insects. Plants were an important part of the food structure.

Planting and taking care of the OWLS location will help the students make a connection to nature as well as provide a unique activity.

"It's fun and it connects us to the prairie," Guhr said.

The original OWLS program was started in 1993 with a Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism grants. Many schools across the state have OWLS locations.

Bitter told the students that they would get to watch the grass and flowers grow and see how the area changes from year to year. Eventually, they will be able to walk through the tall grass like the pioneers.

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