Teton County has over 200 non-profit organizations, many of which do incredible work to protect the wildlife and complex ecosystem of the valley we call home. One organization in particular, the Teton Raptor Center (TRC), has expanded rapidly over the past two decades. We met up with Jessie Walters, the TRC Administrative and Volunteer Coordinator (and so much more) to learn about the mission of TRC, their projects and programs, and their big plans for the future.
What is the mission of Teton Raptor Center?
Our primary mission is to advance raptor conservation through education, research, and rehabilitation. Our work began back in the 1990’s when biologist Roger Smith and his wife Margaret Creel began getting calls about injured raptors in the area. At the time, they cared for the birds out of their home with proper permits As the need for raptor care expanded, in 2008 Roger and Margaret were able to secure a long term lease with Jackson Hole Land Trust for an area in Wilson, Wyoming. In 2017 we were able to purchase the land and give Teton Raptor Center a permanent home.
We house birds here for rehabilitation and residency if they are incapable of returning to the wild. The resident birds that people meet come from all over. If there’s a center that does rehabilitation but the bird is unable to return to the wild they will look online for an education center like our’s to place the bird as a permanent resident for education. Our resident birds come from all over North America as far as Alabama and California.
Is there a reason why this area is the perfect place for a raptor center?
We have a great diversity of raptors in this region – over 30 raptor species are found in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. This is more diverse than in the southeastern United States or even the northwestern United States. Our region is a good place for raptors mainly because they follow the Rocky Mountain Corridor and disperse through the mountains during migrations. The majority of the raptors we see for rehabilitation are from Idaho and Wyoming. We have a great relationship with both Wyoming Game and Fish and Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG). We call IDFG to ask permission to bring raptors across state lines.
What programs and projects do you have going on at the moment?
Right now we offer raptor encounters every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. We haven’t scheduled out our summer offerings yet but always offer private programs with opportunities to tour the facility. We have major plans to expand our program facilities and once our construction is completed we will be open to the public in full force and be able to do programs daily. We’ll also have the capacity for schools or classrooms to come and visit. In addition, we’ll have a learning lab set up like a classroom with benches and desks where kids can do a project while learning about the birds.
We have initiated several projects including The Poo-Poo Project which started in 2010 because we recognized a need for capping vault toilets across the United States. Raptors, other birds, and small mammals were getting trapped inside of vault toilets through the ventilation pipe. The project began in 2010 as the “Porta-potty Owl Project” to prevent entrapment of cavity nesting birds. The vault toilet is a big pipe with ventilation that’s typically open, so we cap it with 4 screws and there’s a one inch gap to allow for airflow. There are holes on top so birds can’t go in it and get stuck. In 2013 we expanded the project to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and now we’re in all 50 states in addition to the Virgin Islands and in Canada as well.
Can you tell me more about the TRC plans to expand?
We have around 27 acres here in Wilson, WY, but we’re only building on three of them. We found preservation of this land to be super important because this is a natural corridor for so much wildlife including elk and moose. We’ve even had black bears on site and possibly 399 when she was running around in early fall. We also have a creek that runs through the property as well, which is beneficial for many species. We’ve currently got the footprints of all the buildings established at this time and the only thing that we need to add is a pavilion. Otherwise, we’re renovating structures we’ve built, and refurbishing structures that were here before we were including some old barns. We were fortunate to have an easement with the Jackson Hole Land Trust and when we purchased the land in 2017 we were determined to continue to honor the easement.
What is your favorite part of working at TRC?
Personally, the birds are my favorite part of working here! I was drawn to TRC because of a naming opportunity to help name one of the resident birds. My husband came up with the name Baxter for one of the new birds and I submitted it. The committee loved the name and from then on I decided I wanted to do everything I could for Baxter. I came here to see him and realized there were so many other birds, and I wanted to do everything I could to help them all. I became staff in 2017 and haven’t looked back. I do a little bit of everything – help out with education, bird care, and rehabilitation from time to time. Every day is different here, which keeps it exciting! It’s nice that a lot of us are able to be flexible in what we do here. Most people are here for the birds. They’re drawn to the birds. There are some people who want to be out in the field not talking to anyone but still learning about birds. We’re able to offer a lot of opportunities to people with a wide breadth of skills depending on their past life. We have some volunteers who used to be nurses, orthopedic surgeons, or artists. They can hone their skills here with the birds.
We’re so grateful for the work Jessie and the entire Teton Raptor Center team accomplishes to protect the raptors in our region which are vital members of our delicate ecosystem. Through education, they are making great strides in enabling thousands of people to better understand the importance of raptors and how important it is that we do everything we can to protect their habitats. To learn more about the work of Teton Raptor Center and how to volunteer you can check out their website here.