As the sound of the rushing waters of the Yampa River filled the air, Tracy Bye opened a carriage door and smiled as she watched a golden eagle leap out. The eagle paused for a moment before launching into the blue skies of the Yampa Valley.
Moments like these are nothing new to Bye.
She’s seen them countless times since the Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Steamboat Springs opened 30 years ago this spring. She estimates that the rehabilitation center has cared for more than 5,000 injured animals.
“I’m just thankful to be in their presence and help them heal,” Bye said. “If you release them back into the wild – because there’s just gratitude involved – I can cry (tears of joy) or smile. When there are people around, I always smile.”
The patient list includes a wide variety of animals, from squirrels and porcupines to deer and elk.
The idea to open a wildlife rehabilitation center, Bye said, came from Colorado Parks and Wildlife associate Jim Hicks, who often attended her class before retiring in 1996. After one visit, Bye asked what it would take to open a center. Bye’s house was on seven acres, so she met the first requirement and she would learn the rest.
“We had a lot of injured animals delivered to us, and we were going to take them to the vet, but after that we needed someone to take care of them,” said Hicks, who brought an injured hawk to Bye not long after. she showed interest. “I helped her quite a bit when she first started and I took her a lot of animals.”
Over the past 30 years, Born Free has become a part of Bye’s life and she cherishes the experiences that have come with the center.
“Every year there was a standout,” Bye said of the animals she cared for. “Usually that’s the one I wrote my stories about.”
She remembers one summer she had a baby beaver named Bullseye, who wouldn’t eat. Her son, Garrett, got in and wouldn’t give up on the young animal. He started feeding the beast bananas.
“Garrett spent hours with that beaver trying to get him to eat, and eventually he started eating,” Bye said. “We released him into the Flat Tops Wilderness Area near this pond where we had seen beavers before.”
Bullseye returned to the wild and the recovery was considered a success. A year later, Bye and her son returned to the pond, curious to see how Bullseye would fit into his new neighborhood.
“All the other beavers left because we walked to the water,” said bye. “Garrett had bananas… and then Bullseye came swimming up to us, and we didn’t touch him or anything, but we just talk to him. Then Garrett put the bananas on the water’s edge and (Bullseye) still liked them.”
It’s through these kinds of experiences that Bye comes back year after year and rises to the challenges of running a wildlife rehabilitation center.
Last weekend, she released a bald eagle just west of Steamboat Springs that fractured its pelvis in what she expected was a hard landing. The other was a golden eagle that was found with a severe case of fowl pox.
Both birds were transported to the Birds of Prey Foundation in Broomfield shortly after being rescued and spent months recovering.
“When I first started, we almost never got eagles — maybe one every three years or something,” Bye said. “Now, it’s like 20 eagles a year or something. It’s not every year, but the numbers are going up.”
Bye is not surprised that the number of birds of prey she sees continues to rise. More people in the area means more collisions between birds and cars.
Also, a federal law in 1991 made it illegal for hunters to use lead ammunition when hunting waterfowl, but bye said wildlife experts are still asking big game hunters, who can still use lead ammunition, to bury gut piles in hopes of that birds of prey will. stop eating those remains and consuming the little lead shards left behind after an animal is shot.
“I’m not slowing down,” said Doe. “I’d say the more people move into the area, the more animals get hurt.”
Fortunately, Bye has a full staff of volunteers and doesn’t need any more. She said it is still sometimes difficult to balance her paid job with the demands of running a rehabilitation center, but she wouldn’t want it any other way.
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email: [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.