RED LODGE — In late 2012 and early 2013, the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary was hit with federal workplace safety-related fines and the loss of major assistance from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“Come last winter, we were really at a turning point,” said Ellie Marion, YWS executive director. “We were going to thrive, or we were going to be done.”
The nonprofit sanctuary, formerly called the Beartooth Nature Center, is home to about 65 animals representing 43 species and is the only public rescued-wildlife refuge in Montana.
It includes wolves, bears, raptors, mountain lions, birds and other animals that can’t return to the wild because of injury or due to habituation to humans.
An anonymous complaint last winter sparked a visit and inspection from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. After, OSHA told the sanctuary that it needed to make workplace safety improvements, mainly involving its electrical systems and in habitat conditions.
Specifically, the sanctuary was using extension cords for features such as heated water dishes for the animals in the wintertime instead of hardwired outlets, which could create safety hazards for both staff and animals.
As for the habitats, OSHA said the predator enclosures needed work to keep staff separate from the animals during feeding. Each enclosure has two areas — a larger one for daily activity and a smaller one for holding — and the sanctuary needed to fix the gates between the two so staff can open and close them from the outside.
“They’re big issues and they’re expensive to do,” Marion said.
Adding to the financial woes, OSHA informed the sanctuary that it could face fines, putting additional stress on its $400,000 annual budget.
Around the same time, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks informed Marion that it would no longer place animals in the sanctuary due to concerns for their health, safety and well-being.
“Right now we are not providing them with any animals,” said Bob Gibson, a Billings-based FWP spokesman. “In the mind of the FWP and our inspectors, the sanctuary is not anywhere close to the standards that it needs to accept any animals from us.”
In addition, financial problems forced Marion to release numerous staff, with a low of just three employees in February.
Even before those troubles began, the sanctuary was working on a five-year plan to stabilize itself and take care of deferred maintenance, but the winter events, and a contentious February public meeting to discuss those issues, put those efforts into overdrive.
Marion said that since the OSHA and FWP issues surfaced, the sanctuary has come up with a plan to address those concerns.
“It’s really only been a little while but so much has happened in the last three-and-a-half months,” Marion said.
At the root of the problems is a lack of consistent finances, but the sanctuary recently received a huge boost in the form of a $270,000 private mortgage on a 20-acre piece of land owned by the YWS north of Red Lodge.
That money is going toward numerous projects and improvements, including addressing the issues brought to light by OSHA and the FWP.
Marion said the mortgage comes from a private family that asked not to be named — she calls the family “angel investors” — and essentially works in the same way as a bank mortgage.
“They stepped in and they sure did a lot for us,” she said.
On June 25, Marion met with OSHA representatives to go over the sanctuary’s efforts to correct electrical and habitat issues. They’ve already started the process of replacing old electrical panels and plan to install solar panels and trenches to run wiring through.
In the habitats, sanctuary staff has made progress on repairing the gates separating the large enclosures from the small ones, which are used to hold the predators while staff clean or put out food.
Even though OSHA informed Marion that the sanctuary would have to pay a $5,400 fine, Tuesday’s meeting went well, with the agency approving of the progress, Marion said.
“It couldn’t have gone any better,” she said. “We went in and showed what we’ve done already and that went a long way towards making them feel comfortable that we’re dealing with the citations.”
As for FWP not providing any more animals, that’ll take more work. Gibson said the agency wants the habitats to meet Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards before placing new animals there.
That means major facility and habitat upgrades sanctuary-wide. However, the FWP has agreed to provide approved animals — there are certain ones, such as bats, raccoons, moose dear or elk that they won’t provide at any time due to disease concerns — each time a specific habitat is taken care of.
“The agreement is that if they get a habitat to where it meets AZA standards, say for a bobcat, we will allow them to have that animal,” Gibson said.
Improving the habitats is also part of a larger long-term goal of taking the sanctuary to the next level, Marion said.
Money from the private mortgage will help to kick-start many of those efforts, although the sanctuary hopes to drastically increase its donations.
Marion said that comparable organizations and facilities bring about 25 percent of their money through admissions and the other 75 percent through grants and donations while the YWS does the exact opposite.
“It’s just critical that we have support from the community,” she said.
She also acknowledged that she needs to improve the sanctuary’s relationship with the community, especially after last winter’s troubles.
“Change is hard,” Marion said. “We need to do a better job of communicating the changes we’re trying to make, especially the positive ones.”
Already there are 12 staff members — up from three a few months ago — including a trio of management-level positions.
The sanctuary has also started a program to increase educational opportunities and is consulting experts throughout the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem for help. The first step involves determining exactly what kind of educational experience they want to provide and then implementing that theme throughout the sanctuary in relation to the wildlife there.
“It’s not OK to just have that wow factor anymore,” Marion said. “Not only is it, ‘Wow, I saw a mountain lion.’ It’s, ‘Now I understand a mountain lion’s role in the ecosystem.’”
While there’s still a lot of work left and it’s early on in the process, Marion hopes those efforts will pave the way to the sanctuary’s place and future in the Red Lodge area.
“The question was, ‘Is it worth saving,’” she said. “Everybody involved agreed that it is.”