ALES Range team hauls home top awards as coach retires

Among its triumphs, the team won first place in the Plant Identification Test portion of the competition, propelled by a first place individual score from Ryan James, back row, third from left.
With instructor Barry Irving in his last season as coach of the ALES Range Team, its members did him proud by continuing a dominant run at an international competition that tests university students’ knowledge of both plants and range management.

Among this year’s triumphs, the team won first place in the Plant Identification Test portion of the competition, propelled by a first place individual score by conservation biology student Ryan James. The event took place at the Society for Range Management's annual conference in Utah in early February.

The Plant ID test is just what it sounds like, but harder—participants must identify 100 different species of plants from samples as tiny as a seed or root, with only one minute of viewing per sample. To master it, students learn a possible 200 species of plants grown on North American rangelands.

The ALES team also won third place in the written portion of the competition, the Undergraduate Range Management Exam or URME. It’s a demanding test of all the information an undergraduate might have encountered over the four years of a typical degree in range management, and features both multiple-choice questions and problems that require interpretation.

“The written test is definitely harder for me,” said James, noting that the highest-ranking ALES student in the URME was Kale Scarff, who placed fourth.

“You have to do 100 questions in two hours and some of those questions require a number of calculations.”

In the High Combined Individual Category (individual scores for both the Plant ID and the URME), ALES took third, fourth and fifth, with James, Sylyanne Foo and Scarff bringing those home, respectively.

Sweetening all of these victories, in the Plant ID exam the team defeated its archrival, Mexico’s Antonio Narro Agrarian Autonomous University, marking only the third time in 25 years that Narro has not won the Plant ID exam.  The ALES team was first all three times, twice in the last three years.

In a fitting tribute to his more than three decades of ensuring that ALES students always excel at this competition, ALES’ coach Barry Irving received the society's W.R. Chapline Land Stewardship Award for his outstanding contribution to promoting this science.

"In addition to guiding students to master plant taxonomy and develop a strong foundation in core range management, he instills them with a deep respect for rangeland ecosystems and their critical value in our modern world," the society wrote.

Irving is one of the most accomplished undergraduate range team coaches within the society. During his tenure, the ALES Range Team has won more than 160 award placements, including 35 first-place finishes for either an individual or the team.

To make the team, members must enrol in Irving’s 400-level class in Environmental Conservation Science from September to December.

The class itself is tough, since Irving challenges students to be competitive in both portions of the contest, unlike some of the schools that concentrate on either Plant ID or the URME. Students also devote eight to 12 extra hours a week of their own time, studying plants and reviewing problem types, and peer coaching each other, and after they finish the semester they keep working through January, bumping up weekly practice tests from one to two.

One of the study techniques that Irving promotes is that the class helps each other compete against him in regular exams.

“This helps keep the class performing as a team and prepares them for the eventual competition exams,” said Irivng.

All that preparation instilled in him killer time-management skills, said James. “You just have to find time for all that stuff, because with plants you can’t just leave them for a week. You start forgetting them quickly.”

However, plant identification and range management knowledge is broadly useful, he said, noting that the course attracts students studying not only rangelands, but also conservation, wildlife, land reclamation, animal science, and crops majors.

While Irving has now retired from coaching the ALES team, he is looking forward to setting the Plant ID exam for next year’s actual competition at the society’s annual conference, to be held in Reno, Nevada.