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Wildlife rehabilitators looking for answers as demand continues to climb

Posted at 10:48 PM, Jul 07, 2019

COLORADO — Colorado is growing, people pushing into new areas that were once wild. This means new roads being laid down, new construction going up and an increased rate of interactions with wildlife. This is a problem because the number of wildlife rehabilitators is not growing proportionately.

"There's more traffic, there's more homes built out, there are just more people everywhere," commented Tom Sanders, a longtime wildlife rehabilitator.

It seems like every day we receive a new story of an interaction between a person and a wild animal that ends up being a detriment to the animal.

For example, this year Colorado Parks and Wildlife has seen a large number of people picking up or interacting with fawns they believed to be "injured" or "abandoned."

It has become a troubling issue in more recent years, with several well-documented incidents through the first half of 2019. CPW asks when encountering an injured or abandoned wild animal, you call the department before acting.

Often those wild animals that are interacted with have to be placed into the care of a rehabilitator if one is available.

However, it's that availability that is really the big issue!

Even though the overall population of the state has grown, the number of wildlife rehabilitators has stayed stagnant for a number of years.

"I do worry that there's just not enough young people coming up into wildlife rehabilitation," commented Diana Miller, wildlife rehabilitator for the Pueblo Raptor Center.

It's an issue that could prove devastating within the next several years.

"It's not like we're going to go away completely," stated Sarah Heckathorn, a wildlife rehabilitator out of Larkspur, "but there's a huge [portion] of us that have been at it for 20 years or better who are 60 years or older that are going to quit. That's just a given, people retire."

According to census data, back in 2010 the state held a population of about 5-million. According to official estimates, mid-last year that number had increased 13% to nearly 5.7-million.

In that same time period, the number of wildlife rehabilitators has not increased at all. In fact, looking back a couple of years farther, you can see a marked decrease in the overall numbers of active rehab license numbers.

KOAA has been working closely with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to access numbers related to wildlife rehabilitation over the past decade and it paints a grim picture.

In 2009, Colorado Parks and Wildlife regulations governing rehabilitation in the state shifted, and according to many wildlife rehabilitators, they shifted dramatically.

"I know that when they did change them years ago, it was intended to be a good thing, it was intended to do right by the animals and to do professional work, academic work. [However], it went a little too far for realism," commented Linda Cope, who previously rehabilitated fawns for more than 20 years.

Under the current regulations, anyone who wants to break into the wildlife rehabilitation scene must first apprentice under a fully licensed rehabilitator for a minimum of a year.

After the changes were implemented, CPW reports that the number of individuals licensed for rehabilitation dropped from 122 down to 95.

"Although I can not definitively state the reduction in licensing from 2008 to 2009 was a direct result of the then-pending regulatory changes, I didn’t see any information in the files that would indicate otherwise either," stated Special Wildlife License Administrator Erik Slater in an email.

Since that initial drop, the state has lost approximately 10-15 additional rehabilitators, the average number for the past several years hovering around 80 active licenses.

This year, for example, the number of licenses add up to 82, although 13 of those licenses are only provisional (indicating a rehabilitator in training). These numbers can be further broken down to show who is rehabilitating various types of animals.

  • Authorized for rehabilitation of Small Mammal: 58
  • Authorized for rehabilitation of Medium Mammal: 46
  • Authorized for rehabilitation of Large Mammal: 14
  • Authorized for rehabilitation of Bat: 5
  • Authorized for rehabilitation of Skunk: 1
  • Authorized for rehabilitation of Raptor: 25
  • Authorized for rehabilitation of Waterfowl: 31
  • Authorized for rehabilitation of Passerine: 45
  • Authorized for rehabilitation of Herptile: 17

Because not every rehabilitator has its own facility, that total of 82 actually breaks down into 49 unique locations. Of these locations, only 10 are authorized to take large animals.

We spent time calling every single one of these locations, four of which are located right in our backyard, and found the following:

  • Only five in the state currently report availability for fawns
  • Of the four located in the vicinity of El Paso, Pueblo, and Teller counties, only one can actually take and hold large animals

Tom and Cec Sanders, the last large animal rehabilitators on the front range, have been running Wet Mountain Wildlife Rehab out in Florence for 34 years.

"Most of the time that we've done it, there hasn't been any other place for these animals to go," commented Tom.

The couple has spent so many years dealing with lions and fawns and bears that, at this point, anything that comes through the doors at their facility is hardly a surprise.

"You know, you really can't plan this. It's day-to-day," commented Cec, "you wake up one morning and you think it might be quiet but by noon you get four more [fawn]."

Currently, due to the lack of any additional wildlife resources inside our area, their facility is filling up rapidly.

"I'm not the one to say, I've got 11 and can't take anymore. It's not going to happen," continued Cec.

The couple is already housing five mountain lions, a number of bobcats, and already has 14 fawns.

In years past, the couple has had the help with a load of fawns of one other wildlife rehabilitator based out of Black Forest, but this year's circumstances forced Linda Cope to shut her doors as well.

"What kept me going is that there is a need, a definite need and it's growing stronger every year," commented Linda.

**One good piece of news surrounding fawns, one wildlife rehabilitator will soon be opening her doors to some of the older fawns in order to take some of the strain off Tom and Cec! Based out of Beulah with several acres of land, she appears to be ideally placed to assist in this situation.**

Even this one closure is concerning because again, according to rehabilitators, younger folks are not signing up to rehabilitate in any large numbers.

Those in the field say the ranks aren't increasing for a number of reasons. Perhaps top of the list is the fact that it's time-consuming, requires land, and the pursuit is self-funded or relies on community support.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which runs the licensing program for wildlife rehab, can't offer any additional financial assistance outside of their new grant program which started this past year.

According to CPW's website, the program is funded primarily by a tax check-off program as well as "with fines from nongame wildlife-based offenses and interest income."

"For the first $250,000 raised annually, 10 percent is allocated to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Grant program, which aims to provide funding specifically for wildlife rehabilitation centers. For many rehabbers, this kind of funding fills a critical gap."

This past year Colorado Parks and Wildlife reports that it received $83,000 in requests but were only able to fulfill just under $17,000 of that.

The money was distributed to eight different rehabilitation facilities across the state.

Returning to the issue revolving around a lack of growth, without an increase in ranks, this means more pressure on current wildlife rehabilitators to care for more animals. Unfortunately these facilities, many operating out of homes, fill up quickly.

"So unfortunately when those places fill up when there's no more room when they're at full capacity, unfortunately, some of these animals have to be euthanized," stated Cody Wigner, an assistant area wildlife manager.

So what's the fix here? How do we provide for the ever-increasing number of injured wildlife?

Many rehabilitators are calling for a change in regulations, which are up for review this year.

"I don't know if a regulation change would be enough, but it's the only place we can start," stated Heckathorn.

According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the wildlife license administration office is currently in the process of contacting wildlife rehabilitators to gain input on potential changes. According to CPW there is no clear indicator of how long this process will take.

"This depends upon the amount and nature of any change in regulation requested by the wildlife rehabilitation licensees. CPW’s intent is any regulatory change approved by CPW Commission would be effective for the 2020 licensing cycle," stated Special Wildlife License Administrator Erik Slater in an email.

Other rehabilitators in the Pikes Peak region believe that investing in a funded facility or facilities that could provide rehabilitation as well as education services is the best idea to pursue.

Of course, education is currently and has always been one of the main tenants of many wildlife rehabilitators as well as a top priority for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

"If you're not out there teaching people about what's going on and trying to make changes, then there's really no point in trying to put the animals back out there because it will just happen again," stated Miller.

At the same time, Tom and Cec Sanders believe education should be made more accessible for those who want to break into the scene.

"We've talked about how the regulatory control on rehabbers has is kind of suppressing the number of people who are willing to go through all of the requirements it takes to be a rehabber," stated Tom, "[but] if you had some funded centers or facilities in different places, then there would be somewhere accessible for people to go get the experience and become certified."

However, currently, any path towards these ideals appears to be fairly far away and nebulous.

"I don't know, I just really don't see that developing," finished Tom.

According to those in the field, there could be big changes coming if nothing is done.

"Maybe that's where we go, it's sickening to me, but I don't know what the answer is," stated Heckathorn.

"I do think our priorities are mixed up in Colorado. I think Colorado is known throughout the world as an environmental state. You think of the mountains, you think of the wildlife, you think of the streams. That's what gives you that warm fuzzy feeling about the state, it's what gives us our soul. I think that's what we need to concentrate on," finished Linda.

  • If you would like to learn more about how to get involved with wildlife rehabilitation in the state of Colorado, you can follow this LINK.
  • If you need to see the public list of wildlife rehabilitators in our state, you can follow this LINK.
  • For official advice on how to interact with wildlife in our state, you can follow this LINK.