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Regaining accreditation was no small feat for ZooMontana, the private, nonprofit zoological and botanical gardens on Shiloh Road. It took eight long years of work to achieve accreditation by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

The process included an on-site inspection in May by a team of zoo professionals who observed animal care and welfare, keeper training, safety for visitors, staff and animals; educational programs, conservation efforts, veterinary programs, financial stability, risk management and visitor services, according to the AZA. 

Serious problems with zoo finances and leadership were primary concerns when the AZA pulled ZooMontana's accreditation eight years ago. The future of ZooMontana was in doubt when Ewelt was hired, first as interim executive director. He later agreed to stay on permanently.

With one month left in the current fiscal year, ZooMontana is operating in the black, according to information from Ewelt. Special events are the top revenue generator followed by admissions, donations, membership, gift shop, education, license plates, concessions, grants and "other." That list reflects efforts to diversify the zoo's revenue base beyond admissions. Although zoo visits and memberships are important revenue sources, they aren't enough.

ZooMontana has promoted itself as a special events venue for everything from weddings and company picnics to concerts and fundraising activities for other local nonprofits. In September alone, ZooMontana has already been the site of Ales for Trails, a benefit for TrailNet, and the Rubber Duck Regatta benefiting Senior Helping Hands. This Sunday, the Alzheimer's Association Plans a fundraising walk around the zoo. In the two years since the events pavilion opened near the zoo entrance, more than 80,000 people have attended activities there. 

Ewelt credited the zoo's special events and community relations coordinators for growing the array of events that have brought more people to the zoo.

"This summer was incredible," Ewelt told The Gazette. "We are just a fun, great space and we are becoming a community gathering place." 

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Ewelt praised the zoo's volunteer board of directors for being "incredible go-getters." The board presently has 11 members and one vacancy, he said. (Full disclosure: Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick is on the board.)

All but three of the 23 staff members have been hired since Ewelt arrived, but staffing has stabilized, he said. The AZA inspection team recognized the zoo staff and board for "embracing the accreditation process." 

Even though ZooMontana was previously accredited, it basically had to start all over as a "new" zoo. It was officially accredited for five years at a hearing on Sept. 7 at the start of an AZA conference in New Orleans, but Ewelt kept the news quiet until the AZA made its announcement Monday.

“Only the very best aquariums and zoos can meet AZA’s accreditation standards for animal care and welfare, conservation, education, and more, which are the most rigorous in the profession,” AZA President and CEO Dan Ashe said in a news release Monday. “By achieving AZA accreditation, ZooMontana demonstrates a commitment to protecting animals around the world and inspiring their guests to do the same.”

Ewelt deserves much of the credit for keeping ZooMontana going and growing. His enthusiasm about the animals and activities is infectious. He's like a kid awed by zoo critters. He's also a dedicated leader who has worked with staff, board members and community partners to keep thousands of adults and children enthralled with the zoo and gardens year after year.

Congratulations on accreditation, ZooMontana.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.