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Envirothon contest puts students on wild side

Mike Putonti was fast asleep at 5:25 a.m. Monday when the telephone rang. He slept through the telephone call, but not what happened next.

"My parents just came in and said, "Wake up. You're going to the Envirothon,' " he said.

To which Mike replied: "Huh? What's that?"

He soon found out, as he joined his school's team, Environmental II, for a bus ride to Citrus County and a spot in the third annual Nature Coast Regional Envirothon at Fort Cooper State Park.

The team from Gulf High School had lost one of its five members to illness, and the team's adviser thought Putonti, a Boy Scout, might be a good replacement.

As it turned out, Putonti was an asset to the team. "I've answered a couple of questions for them," he said. "Doing pretty good."

The members of Environmental II were joined by 54 other teams from Citrus, Sumter, Hernando and Pasco counties competing in six categories: aquatics, forestry, wildlife, soils, water resources and ecosystem management.

When the dust settled and the water quality gauges were stilled, the BioRangers from Springstead High School in Hernando County had outscored the other teams to win the Envirothon crown for the second straight year.

Each member of that winning team will receive a $500 scholarship upon graduation from high school and acceptance at a post-secondary school.

"Mom's going to be real pleased," said second time regional winner Christine Sperlazza, who plans to use her prize at Florida State University.

The BioRangers were quick to praise their competition but said that as veterans of the event, this year was smooth sailing. "It's our senior year," Sperlazza said. "It's like we had to leave our trademark or something."

The top team from Pasco County was Intelegentsia from Zephyrhills High School. Citrus County's best team was Hi-C, a team of home school students, and Sumter's winning team was the Environmental Raiders I from South Sumter High School.

Blessed with a perfect day, nearly 300 students gathered early in the day around Lake Holathlikaha, in sight of a couple of soaring eagles and in the midst of complaining grackles. They were dressed in matching Envirothon T-shirts and caps, provided by the event's sponsors. A sea of green.

The five-member teams moved from station to station answering questions devised by experts in the various areas. Some were hands-on or visual questions, such as using a directional antenna to pinpoint a receiver, as in the tracking of manatees; and identification of animal tracks and a large, Florida pine snake.

The Envirothon presented dozens of challenging questions. Students were asked to say how old a squirrel was by simply looking at its tail. Team members were shown two empty acorns and asked what kind of animal had harvested them.

This year, ecosystem management was added to thecategories. Department of Environmental Protection representative Kathy Liles described ecosystem management as "citizenship, stewardship and sustainability." Students answered questions about invasive exotic plants and place-based management.

At the end of the testing, the students were treated to lunch by the Friends of Fort Cooper and music by forester/singer Dave Fogler.

At the awards ceremony, Envirothon coordinator and soil scientist Paul Pilny, who says he already is looking forward to next year, announced that the top teams from each of the four counties go on to the Florida Envirothon, April 25 and 26, at Highland State Park in Sebring. The winners there go to the National Envirothon Competition in Jonestown, Pa., in August.