As the snow melts and the warm seasons kick in, a new generation of Utah wildlife has begun to be born, hatch, and open their eyes to a vast new world. But the state’s continued drought and rampant human development have squeezed food resources and reduced natural habitats, increasing the animals’ chances of survival.
For this reason, the Northern Utah Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, the state’s largest animal rehabilitation organization, is gearing up for a record year of animal refugees – coin-sized hummingbirds. from coins to adult bald eagles, beaver, otter and porcupine.
“We are expecting a record year. We will welcome over 4,000 animals this year and up to 40 new customers a day” during peak months, “and we need to know how to handle over 100 different species,” said Dalyn Marthaler, center manager.
The guest list at the Northern Utah Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is an example of Utah’s rich animal diversity – but the growing number of visitors is seen by Marthaler and other wildlife experts as a disturbing trend.
“We are seeing more and more animals showing up emaciated, dehydrated and hungry. They have no food source because of the drought. And 90% of what happens in our center is due to some kind of human impact (like) habitat loss because buildings are going up like crazy,” Marthaler said.
“It’s a problem because it gets to squirrels and small animals, which means the prey base is low and it goes all the way up the food chain.”
One of the center’s most common patrons is the kestrel, North America’s smallest falcon and the mainstay of the Utah skyline. The kestrel, recognized by its colorful feathers, has seen its populations decline in recent decades, which experts say is largely linked to pesticides and insecticides moving up the food chain and harming many avian species.
The Northern Utah Wildlife Rehabilitation Center plans to welcome more than 100 kestrels this season.
The center also rehabilitates bald eagles, many of whom are brought in suffering from lead poisoning from ingested bullet fragments with carrion. Birds consume “piles of intestines” – the discarded entrails of gutted game – which contain lead fragments from bullets that are absorbed into the bird’s bones. Then the lead leaks out and causes a host of conditions, from paralysis to seizures and other neurological problems.
“You just ingest even the smallest bit and their stomach acids are so strong that they go straight into their bloodstream causing all sorts of neurological problems. This is a huge problem for eagles and other birds” , said Marthaler, who is currently rehabilitating a bald eagle for the disease.
The center treats birds with daily injections of a calcium-derived compound that binds to lead to help pass it safely, while monitoring lead levels.
But the treatments are not cheap and without a stable source of funding, the center works in an environment of uncertainty and limitation.
“Our biggest challenge is that there is no state or federal funding for this. There is not a penny. It’s all about donations, so if we’re going after a bald eagle and we want to save his life, everything has to come from donations,” Marthaler said.
“People assume it’s a national bird, so there must be some kind of money, but people are shocked when they find out there isn’t,” said Marthaler, who explained that if an organization like the Northern Utah Wildlife Rehabilitation Center does not take the animals, then they will be euthanized by the Department of Wildlife Resources.
The shelter raises funds from a large base of small donors, but she says the donation-based funding model creates uncertainty in the work.
Today, the challenges have multiplied with the spread of avian flu in Utah, which has increased expenses associated with animal quarantine and prompted threats of state shutdown.
“Avian flu is a game-changer. It’s going to be a long, hard summer. But we will do our best to save as many as possible.
Yet rather than how they fund the work, the more puzzling question might be why they fund it – given the negligible impact rehabilitation plays in the larger context of wildlife populations.
“We have to justify why we do rehabilitation. Because even though every life is important, on the whole we are fully aware that we are not making a big difference in the population. If we save a bald eagle, that’s really cool, but is it going to have an impact on the population? Probably not,” Marthaler said.
Instead, she sees it as raising awareness and encouraging people to invest in healthy animal ecosystems – knowledge she says is sorely lacking.
“It amazes me how many people think their yard is not used by anyone but them. They’ll bring in little wild babies after chopping down bushes or trees, and they tell us they “had no idea anything was living there.” It’s amazing for us to see how many people are offline,” Marthaler said.
“What is important is the possibility of educating and involving people. If we don’t get people interested, we won’t stop what’s happening because of the human impact,” she said.