Keeping it wild | SteamboatToday.com

Keeping it wild

Tracy Bye’s commitment to wildlife rehabilitation led her to open a center near Steamboat Springs

— There is love in Tracy Bye's voice as she prepares specially formulated bottles in the kitchen sink of her home just outside of Steamboat Springs.

As she talks, she describes the animals she has saved, the ones she has lost and the ones she is caring for now at the Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which is located just a few steps outside her back door.

When she tells the stories, the love in her soft voice seems to be louder than the sweet song of the chicks that are safely stored in a kennel inside her garage — a two-car space better defined as a "recovery room."

Behind that garage you will find the rest of the complex, which includes a wooden aviary that is now home to a long-eared owl and a chicken coop that shelters a number of birds, including geese and ducks, and a rabbit.

There is also a small corral that protects two small fawns that were thought to be abandoned early this spring. Bye explains that the fawns were taken from their mothers by well-intentioned people — something that Bye warns others not to do since deer rarely leave their fawns for extended periods of time.

"I guess I never thought about it," Bye says when asked about how large her operation has grown over the years. "I've loved animals since I was a tiny child, and my mom and dad were good enough to let me get a ton of them. I feel like I get along better with animals than I do people most of the time."

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The wildlife rehab facility might not appear that impressive from the outside — a building located on a sparsely populated hill surrounded by acres of open space. But once you step into Bye's kitchen and watch her care for dozens of recovering animals, it's easy to understand just how special this place is to the animals that are brought to her for care.

With the exception of a tall electric fence, which she had to add a few years ago to keep the bears out and the animals safe, this place leaves visitors with a warm feeling. The idea of protecting and saving young animals makes for a great story, but that's not the reason that Bye opened the rehabilitation center 23 years ago. Her goal is to help the injured and abandoned wildlife she cares for return to the wild.

"The first year I cared for 22 animals," Bye recalls. "Last year, I had 158, and this year, it looks like it will be more than that. As the amount of people grows in Steamboat Springs, so has the number of injured animals that I'm looking after."

She said she has seen an increase in the number of injured animals that are brought into her facility due to the increase in human population; however, she thinks the jump also can be attributed to the increased number of power lines and the number of raptor colliding with vehicles.

"Car hits are huge," Bye says. "I see a lot during hunting season out on the back roads. There is no question that a lot more raptors are hit."

A lot of the work Bye does is with the raptors, which can be found soaring across the Northwest Colorado sky and feeding on a nearly endless diet provided by the wide open fields of hay that dominate the landscape.

Just a few weeks ago, Bye released a young hawk just a few feet from the garage that provided him safety during the past few months as he gained strength. Just seconds after the raptor stepped out of a plastic kennel that had served as his temporary home, he took flight, soaring high above the spinning earth and joining another hawk circling the area.

As she watched, Bye's eyes focused on the interaction and an unmistakable smile, filled with pride, stretched across her face.

"Oh look, he's found a friend," she said with same love-filled voice that helped coax the bird back to health.

Today, the center not only comes to the call of agencies surrounding Steamboat Springs but also serves Northwest Colorado including areas surrounding Rangely, Meeker, Craig, Hayden, Clark, Walden and Oak Creek. As the number of wildlife rehabilitation centers across the state drop because of increased regulations and budget limitations, the importance of facilities such as Born Free continues to grow.

"There are a lot of regulations put on wildlife rehabilitation centers these days, and because of that, tons of people are dropping out," Bye said. "There are only four centers in Colorado that can take ungulates (hoofed mammals), and the poor Front Range has nobody."

Bye said she would like to help as many areas as possible, but because of things such as chronic wasting and other diseases, it's getting more difficult. Wildlife officers appreciate what Bye is doing but most also look out for the safety of the herd and the region.

"It's a feel-good thing," said Jim Haskins, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "Tracy has been very successful, and she does things the right way."

Haskins said that isn't always the case when it comes to wildlife rehabilitation. Many people running the centers start out with good intentions only to discover that the work and cost involved are more than they anticipated, Haskins said.

According to Haskins, Born Free is well operated, and it's been a huge advantage to have the center in the Steamboat Springs area.

"It's a great resource," Haskins said. "When we have an injured animal or an injured raptor, there is a place that we can take them and it's close by."

Haskins said Born Free's central location means his officers don't have to take a whole day to transport an injured animal to a rehabilitation center.

"She is really great at what she does," Haskins said. "If she can't handle it, then she knows someone who can. She is well trained and understands the role of a wildlife rehabilitator and that's really important."

Bye's experience and her knowledge are reasons that Parks and Wildlife officers across the region seek her out when they find an injured animal or bird. Haskins said he has used Born Free in the past for deer and elk and all kinds of raptors.

It was a former Parks and Wildlife officer, Jim Hicks, who helped Bye open the wildlife rehabilitation center more than 20 years ago after Bye, who is also a middle school teacher, asked him what it would take to open a rehabilitation center after he spoke to one of her classes.

A few days later, Hicks came out to her home to see if she had what was needed to open the center.

"He saw that I had the land, and the next day he brought me an injured hawk," Bye recalls.

She admits that she didn't have a clue of what to do, but she was ready to learn. She took the hawk to a raptor center in Denver, and the staff there unofficially took her under their wing.

Bye stayed with the bird and learned how to care for it. She has continued to study through the years and has acquired the knowledge needed to run her own center. She has also been able to develop a number of strong relationships with the local veterinarians and the Birds of Prey rehabilitation center in Denver.

She is quick to point out that requirements have changed. Today, a person must work under someone for a year and pass a number of tasks before opening a center. It's harder to get started, but Bye understands the need to learn before taking on the task of helping an injured animal recover or caring for an abandoned animal.

Bye said a lot of wildlife rehabilitation centers start out with good intentions but fall short when they figure out what it takes to care for animals. She said it isn't just feeding them and watching as they get better. It also includes maintaining a workable budget, finding money to keep the doors open and filling out a lot of required paperwork.

These days Bye stays up-to-date with the requirements to care for wildlife and never loses sight of the end goal of returning the animals to the wild, and never forgetting why she started Born Free in the first place. She also points out that the animals are not the only ones who find a way to heal at Born Free.

"In all the hardest situations of my life, like my brother and dad dying, cancer and divorce, my animals have been the ones who have been there for me through thick and thin," Bye said. "It's the only reason I got through the tough stuff. If I can be that for the wild animals as they face their trauma that has brought them to me, then in some way I am helping a beautiful being feel a little better."