YWS in dire straits-plea to save the animals

Photo by Eleanor Guerrero, Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary Executive Director Michelle Marion shares some hard truths at the meeting, Feb. 2, at Red Lodge Pizza Co.

 

By Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Reporter
 
Although stating that YWS had the potential to be “a magnet for greater tourism in the region”, YWS Executive Director Michelle Marion shared hard truths in a Red Lodge meeting Sat., February 2, at Red Lodge Pizza Co., “to dispel rumors.” One federal agency has the potential to shut down YWS. One state agency has the right to reclaim its animals. If that occurred, a majority of the elderly animals could be euthanized. It all depends upon ongoing negotiations and the raising of immediate funding. YWS President Laura Getz was also present. “
 
 
“We have not been receiving animals from FWP for some time,” said Marion. She invited Montana FWP to visit the facility to see what improvements could be made and discussions were ongoing. 
 
“In Jan., 2013, FWP informed us they will place no new rescued wildlife until we meet Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) standards,” she said. There are 72 animals, 44 species, at YWS. Many would need new or modified habitats. YWS is working closely with FWP.
 
The AZA website states, “The institution must have the necessary resources to support and provide for the professional care and management of a species, so that the physical and social needs of both specimen and species are met.” It continues, “the stringent requirements for AZA accreditation and high standards of professional conduct are unmatched by similar organizations…” They exceed United State Department of Agriculture standards for licensed animal exhibitors.
 
Marion said some changes were major and require “a lot of, lot of money.” For example, two wolves that live separately must each have 5,000 square feet of space. 
 
“We are grateful the FWP has been working with us to implement these changes,” Marion said. She hoped they would continue to be able to respond in a reasonable time, perhaps habitat by habitat. “AZA wants animals of Montana in the best conditions-space, enrichment and care and so do we,” she said. Examples include providing stimulation and adding trees and water structures for more natural habitat. 
 
FWP retains ownership of any animals brought to YWS including the right to take them back. However, said Marion, according to FWP policy, elderly animals would not be “re-homed” but could be euthanized. A majority of the animals at YWS are elderly and belong to FWP. “We would have no control,” she said. “ We’d end up with a bison and a few bears… I’m sure the town doesn’t want an empty hillside.” 
 
“Another urgency is that we have been reported to a federal agency. There will be a short time to contest and up to six weeks to respond. A plan would be required. Marion felt the agency would work with them but could make no comment since the citations have not issued. A board member said penalties could reach $50,000. They are hopeful the financial state of the facility would be considered in working things out and that the biggest concern would be fixing any violations. She added, “You will know as soon as I do. It is evolving daily.”
 
YWS supporter, Mrs. Johnson, declared, “I wasn’t aware until I came today, how dire the situation is. We need the community to be aware of what’s going on.” Marion agreed, “If someone wants to give us $300,000…” 
 
Marion said $270,000 was needed immediately for improvements. “We hope to obtain the funding privately from loyal supporters for a mortgage on the northern property of 29 acres. There is a strong plan,” she stressed. “We would conservatively repay it in five years.” 
 
Getz stated, “When I heard about the prospect of the mortgage, I said, ‘No, no, no.’ Now, I realize we have no other option.” It had been the dream of founder Ruth Brown to secure the 29 acres as the future habitat for the animals. The balance of funds would go towards operating costs. Marion said YWS should be operating at around $750,000 and that YWS has been operating at almost half that figure. 
 
One prospective donor asked, “How can we be sure that if we make a major investment it will be enough to not have the place close down?” Marion said she was confident they could make it work. She stressed, “We cannot do it without the community. We have the potential to partner with other like agencies and organizations to make it even better.” Marion noted the close working relationships between YWS and Game Warden Matt Heaton and FWP Biologist Shawn Stewart. She also praised Don Duncan, YWS’ extraordinary animal caretaker and devoted employee of 15 years.
 
When partnership with Zoo Montana was raised Marion said their mission was different and Zoo Montana is not AZA accredited. Jeff Ewalt (Director of Zoo Montana) was present but did not comment. 
 
Marion said YWS is a partner with FWP. They are talking with Yellowstone Business Partnership are looking for other potential partners. The Grizzly Wolf Discovery Center is another possibility to explore. 
 
“We have a budget and we have a vision,” explained Marion. “The vision (way down the road) can be many things: using both lands or just one; specializing in one animal only-such as lions; using the present site as an education center and the northern one as habitat.” 
 
Business is viable, according to Marion. Visitors have increased from 13,889 in 2011 to 17,907 last year. She believes a major marketing plan can draw in tens of thousands. Many are already drawn there from Yellowstone. 
 
The community is urged to volunteer for “think tank groups” (to strategize), for a new advisory board and for the regular board. She emphasized the time to come forward to help the animals is now.
 
Marion said, “We’ve never had a written plan in place on how to get there.” For the first time, “We are planning a long term budget to create a self-sustaining facility. It will come out better and stronger, contributing to the community as a major draw.” 
 
For now, they need financial help to save the animals. A capitol funding plan for $900,000 is in the five year plan but will take time. 
 
“We can’t do that today,” Marion stressed, “We need help immediately to survive today to get to that more stable future.”