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"Educating with Mudbugs: A successful collaboration," by Eric Proctor

This article was published in the January-February 2007 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. Support Arizona's award-winning wildlife magazine — order online.

A flash flood isn’t the best time to capture crayfish.

Of course, back in July when Jeff Sorensen and I planned this mid-October field day, rain was the last thing on our minds. We simply wanted to give teachers a hands-on experience with crayfish. A species not originally found in Arizona, crayfish can be considered “invasive” in the state (see definition below), particularly in smaller streams and mountain lakes. Collecting and working with this destructive species would help teachers better understand why the Arizona Game and Fish Commission has prohibited the transport of live crayfish in most of the state.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

The live transport ban was a positive step in the control and management of crayfish, but it hit educators hard. By the time this ban took effect in 2001, many school districts had invested in classroom lessons that required students to observe live crayfish. The most common curriculum material was the Full Option Science System kit called “Structures of Life.” Using this kit, third- and fourth-graders observe and compare the structures of different organisms — including crayfish — and classify them into groups. When the ban took effect, teachers were no longer able to acquire live crayfish.

School districts noticed the change almost immediately. “We felt like our hands were tied,” says Janey Kaufman, K-12 science coordinator for the Scottsdale Unified School District. “We had an opportunity to teach the students about the problem, yet without the crayfish, this part of our curriculum meant nothing.” No one could have predicted it at the time, but this was the beginning of a highly successful collaboration between the Arizona Game and Fish Department, school districts and private industry.

At Kaufman’s request, I met with her and Richard Pacheco, a representative from Delta Education (a large science supply company which distributes the Full Option Science System kits locally). Jeff Sorensen, who manages the department’s Invertebrates and Native Fish Program, joined us. Kaufman made a convincing case for why teachers should be allowed to use crayfish. Quickly we reached a reasonable compromise to put live crayfish back in the hands of teachers and students. Clear on our responsibilities, each party began working on its part of the bargain.

The Scottsdale district began developing a “responsible use plan.” This plan carefully outlined the protocol the district would follow when handling live crayfish. The district designed specific procedures for proper care of crayfish, including listing the people responsible for transport, care and feeding of the animals. The plan described disposal procedures to ensure that the crayfish would not be released into Arizona’s rivers and lakes. Finally, it established teacher-training requirements.

Under the plan, the district must apply for a Wildlife Holding Permit to buy, import, receive, hold and transport live crayfish in Arizona. Crayfish may be obtained from many sources, including biological supply companies, individuals with Scientific Collecting Permits, designated agents of the permit holder with Arizona fishing licenses, or department staff.

The Game and Fish Department accepted the plan, permitting the district to use live crayfish in classrooms. To make the process easier for other districts, Scottsdale’s plan now serves as a template. Each district can use the plan as a base, changing the language to better fit its needs. The Madison School District in Phoenix has completed the process, and more districts are on the way.

To fulfill its part of the bargain, the department’s Education Branch enlisted the services of Cathy Janssen and Kelly Plowman, two teachers from the Scottsdale district. They developed a lesson called, “The Trouble with Crayfish.” In this lesson, students simulate the introduction of crayfish into a local stream. By modeling crayfish behavior, the students can graph data and analyze the impact on native fish populations and the ecosystem. Then, they brainstorm solutions and develop a management plan to address this nonnative species. The lesson is designed to be included in the Full Option Science System kit already in many Arizona classrooms. The department distributes this lesson free as part of the Focus Wild program at

Delta Education also got involved, adding a link from its Web site to the department’s crayfish lesson and the Scottsdale district’s responsible use plan template. Now that they have free access to these resources, interested teachers from as far away as New Jersey have contacted the department about this lesson plan.

Teaching the Teachers

At this point, the collaboration already could be considered a success. However, for Jeff and me it wasn’t enough. We felt driven to get the word out, to make sure teachers know how bad the crayfish problem is. So, we invited teachers into the field.

Our goal was to immerse teachers in a real research experience. We wanted to show them firsthand the destruction that crayfish cause in an ecosystem. With the help of department employees, we would allow teachers to capture crayfish and collect biological data. They would count, measure and sex the animals. And if they were lucky, they could participate in a good, old-fashioned crayfish boil.

We offered the first crayfish field experience in late August 2006. Six teachers from the Phoenix area, including Kaufman, participated. Within hours, we collected and catalogued nearly 300 of the aquatic invaders at the Seven Springs area near Cave Creek. We took most of these crayfish to the Arcadia Critter Farm, an animal care facility for the Scottsdale school district, where they would be managed according to the district’s responsible use plan.

Feedback from the event was positive. Beth Jensen, math and science coach at Franklin School in the Tempe Elementary School District, said, “The crayfish event was an excellent hands-on learning experience that integrated Arizona math and science standards with real-life applications.”

Lesson Plan: How to Keep Your Sense of Humor Intact

Beneath a threatening sky last October, nearly 20 teachers and department employees stood ready to capture crayfish as part of our second teacher training. But just minutes after we arrived at Seven Springs, a storm blew in, unleashing a flash flood. The flood ravaged the creek bed and extinguished almost all hope for catching crayfish that day.

All was not lost: Some employees and volunteers who camped at the site the night before had trapped six crayfish. Huddled under quickly raised canopies precariously tied to our vehicles, participants struggled to hear our presentation between bouts of intense downpour. In the brief moments of calm, we showed teachers how to use the various traps to collect the crayfish. Using our few specimens, we helped them to measure and sex the animals. We gave away examples of the data collection sheets used by our researchers so teachers could take them into their own classrooms.

For most participants, this was their first experience with a flash flood. Everyone cheerfully seized on the flood itself as a learning opportunity. They watched as the flood’s force tore apart riverbanks and road crossings. The Cave Creek Complex fire recently devastated this area, so we discussed how hot fires increase soil erosion and the potential for major flooding.

Once the rain let up, we decided to attempt a capture, piling into a few vehicles to find an area of the stream (perhaps a small pond) that wasn’t moving as quickly and could provide a haven for crayfish. No such luck. But as we waited for the waters to recede so we could go home, a few unexpected yet welcome guests visited us. A great blue heron soared overhead, apparently not bothered by the weather. A large caterpillar (perhaps a species of sphinx moth) stood motionless in the grass, probably hoping to avoid detection. Raccoon tracks in the muddy banks heightened our curiosity — what was the animal doing and where was it now? A red-spotted toad, barely larger than my thumbnail, hopped through the brush trying to find cover.

We didn’t catch crawdads that day, but our misfortune had given us a number of teachable moments, opportunities to learn about important components of this ecosystem. The teachers reported later that this experience had been positive and they now had a greater appreciation for the environment.

The Benefits of Working Together

For teachers, the crayfish ban has proved to be a blessing in disguise. At one time it was an inconvenience. Now, thanks to this successful collaboration, Arizona has a premier education program that will serve as the model for other states. Under strict regulations, live crayfish are now being used in classrooms as part of rich, new lessons focusing on the dangers of invasive species. Field experiences continue to expose teachers to natural ecosystems and the changes caused by crayfish.

Mary Jenkins, science curriculum and instruction specialist for the Deer Valley School District, spoke of her experience during the August crayfish collection. “I learned how much of a blight the crayfish are on our environment and how bringing in nonnative species can have a negative impact on that environment.”

Who knows what other surprises await our students when collaborations like this exist?



The Problem with Crayfish

Why would a creature that looks like a miniature lobster be considered such a big problem?

In the case of the crayfish, it’s because they eat anything and everything. Crayfish are omnivorous, feeding on aquatic plants and animals including lily pads, insects, snails, frogs, baby turtles, fish and fish eggs, and garter snakes. Other species that evolved without crayfish around can quickly fall victim to its predatory habits.

Crayfish (also called crawdads or mudbugs) are not native to Arizona. They were introduced to our waterways in the 1940s as live bait. Since then, crayfish have become a problem to Arizona’s natural habitats and native species. They are particularly harmful in riparian areas.

Crayfish can turn a naturally healthy, thriving river that is home to many species of plants and animals into a biological desert that is home to, well, just crayfish. In Arizona, crayfish reduce water quality by eating aquatic plants that filter and oxygenate it. With plants gone, soil is no longer held in place. Feeding or burrowing crayfish stir up gravel, rocks and soil, increasing the silt in the water. Crayfish may also outcompete other species in using available food and shelter.

It is against the law to release crayfish or any other organism (plant or animal) into Arizona waters without permission from the state. In addition, it is illegal to transport live crayfish throughout most of Arizona. The Arizona Game and Fish Department encourages people to catch and eat crayfish. You can legally harvest unlimited numbers of crayfish with a valid Arizona fishing license. (See rules and regulations at Arizona Game and Fish’s Web site,

This article was published in the January-February 2007 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. To subscribe or give a gift, order online.

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