Salem wildlife rehabilitation center loses state permit over taking in black bear

The black bear yearling Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center took in April 1 (Photo from TRWC Facebook page)

In what Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says was a rare decision, Salem’s local wildlife facility had its rehabilitation permit revoked, putting a strain on similar nearby facilities.

The move came after Turtle Ridge Wildlife Center took in a black bear yearling April 1, after an electric company worker found the animal in the Detroit area in the burns scars of last year’s devastating Santiam Fire.

TRWC had been rehabilitating injured or orphaned wildlife since it was founded in 2005. Up until its permit was revoked, it was one of two facilities in Willamette Valley area permitted to rehabilitate wildlife. The other facility, Chintimini Wildlife Center, in Corvallis, has been open since 1989.

Jessy Gill, who heads TRWC, says she was told by fish and wildlife officers that she had violated a section of the wildlife rehabilitation permit after failing to report to ODFW immediately upon taking in the bear.

ODFW sent Gill a notice saying the agency intended to revoke her permit on April 23. Gill said her attorney missed state deadlines to request a hearing and judicial review, but she’s secured a new attorney who’s helping her appeal the decision.

The permit was revoked June 10. Without it, the center can’t take in and rehabilitate wild animals.

The incident occurred when the worker spotted what appeared to be a small bear off the side of the road where he and a crew were working at that day, Gill said.

The worker told Gill he’d been watching the bear all day and its mother didn’t show up, so he called TRWC for help.

Gill said it was after 7 p.m. when the road worker brought the bear to the facility. She said she was still at TWRC when the worker brought in the bear, which she said looked in poor condition.

“I spent the rest of that evening working to stabilize the cub,” she said. “He was in really critical condition … He needed that immediate care.”

Gill said wildlife rehabilitation permit states she is supposed to notify ODFW “immediately” of a black bear arriving at her facility.

However, it was not until around noon the next day, after caring for the bear all night long and had attended several meetings the next morning that Gill contacted fish and wildlife officials.

“I had a couple meetings that morning and as soon as I was able to break away from that, I emailed ODFW and called them around noon, I think,” she said. “I didn’t get through to the biologist but left a message and then followed up with an email with all the information.”

The agency said in an email that TRWC breached one of the conditions of the permit when it took in a black bear and failed to immediately notify fish and wildlife officials.

“Holding a bear is not only against rules of permit (which Turtle Ridge was not permitted to hold) but runs the risk of habituating the bear,” said Michelle Dennehy, spokesperson for ODFW.

But Gill and her supporters believe TRWC notified the state within a reasonable timeframe, and says that the agency’s revocation of her permit was an abuse of its power.

While Dennehy did not quantify what ODFW means by reporting “immediately,” she said the agency “does not provide regular staffing outside business hours but licensed wildlife rehabilitators would have the contact information of our local district wildlife biologists, and are expected to notify our staff, even after business hours” as indicated by the permit conditions.

“Our district wildlife biologists would make arrangements for available staff to respond, and at a minimum, would consult with our department veterinary staff and wildlife health lab to arrange a health and behavior evaluation,” Dennehy said.

After trying to reach ODFW, Gill said she had to leave the wildlife center to pick up her daughter from work and help her son get ready for a football game later in the day.

Gill was out and about running errands when her son called from home to tell her that an Oregon State Police officer was at their house looking for her and the black bear.

“ODFW had not tried to reached me at that point at all, which is not typically how it goes,” Gill said of her experience. “Typically, they’d reply to me and arrange to send an ODFW personnel out to pick (an animal) up, and they’re supposed to send one of their veterinary staff along.”

While Gill gave her account of events that day, ODFW said it could not comment in detail regarding the incident “due to ongoing litigation.”

The bear was eventually euthanized.

“Yearlings that have lived in the wild are not appropriate for captive facilities as they have already had the experience of living in the wild and do not do well in captive facility,” Dennehy said. “While cubs are sometimes rehabilitated in permitted facilities … the risk of habituating an older bear is too great.”

Dennehy added that yearling bears, such as the one TRWC took in, “can go on to be a threat to humans because they lose their natural fear of people during interactions at a rehabilitation facility.”

“This yearling was also too sick and emaciated to be restored to health — the yearling was only about 10 pounds when normal yearling would be from 30-90 pounds, evidence of extremely poor health,” she added. “So it was humanely euthanized.”

Supporters of TRWC have been rallying to get ODFW to change course and get Gill’s permit reinstated.

Ben Thomas with Animal Conservation and Rehabilitation Network, a Portland-based nonprofit advocates for wildlife protection efforts, was one of a five people who spoke during the public comment period of August’s ODFW commission meeting to advocate for TRWC.

“TRWC serves not only the Salem area but is the only full-species center in the Portland area. The center intakes an average of 2,000 animals annually, the majority occurring in the spring,” Thomas stated. “When [ODFW] decided to suspend Jessy’s license, it effectively shut down TRWC just before the seasonal deluge of calls and did so over a technicality. Thus, most calls, roughly five times the actual intake, had to go elsewhere.”

With TRWC unable to take in wildlife, Thomas said other nearby facilities have gotten “burdened and overwhelmed.”

In a June newsletter, Sarah Spangler, the executive director of Chintimini Wildlife Center in Corvallis, said the facility “exceeded patient capacity for the first time in organizational history.”

“With the recent closure of two similar organizations in the area, (Chintimini) is now struggling to meet the demand on its own,” Spangler wrote. She described the facility as “the last operational “all-species” wildlife rehabilitation center in the Willamette Valley from Salem to Eugene.”

While Spangler did not attend last month’s commission meeting, other wildlife rehab supporters, including representatives from the Portland Audubon Society and the Washington D.C.-based Animal Wellness Action spoke on behalf of Gill’s abilities and the need for a rehab center like TRWC in the area.

Scott Beckstead, an adjunct animal law professor at Willamette University who also works as director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action, said he disagreed with ODFW’s decision to euthanize the black bear and was critical of the agency’s treatment of wildlife rehabbers.

“Over my many years working in wildlife protection I have heard from rehabilitators about being bullied and mistreated by ODFW,” Beckstead told the commission during last month’s meeting. “Instead of being supported by the agency, they live in constant fear that the slightest misstep will result in the loss of their license and possible criminal citations, as what happened with the Turtle Ridge facility.”

State wildlife officials, however, disagree.

“ODFW appreciates the work that Oregon’s licensed wildlife rehabilitators do for wildlife and considers them important partners in caring for sick and injured wildlife and getting them back to the wild,” Dennehy said. “It’s important that rehabilitators work in ways so that wildlife are not ‘habituated’ to people.”

Dennehy also ODFW has “a process in place for permittees to appeal these decisions” such as the one to revoke Gill’s permit and that the decision to revoke TWRC’s permit was “rare.”

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