With the sound of the rolling waters of the Yampa River filling the air, Tracy Bye opened the door of a carrier and smiled as she watched a golden eagle hop outside. The eagle paused for a brief moment before launching into blue Yampa Valley sky.
Moments like these are nothing new for Bye.
She has seen them countless times since opening the Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Steamboat Springs 30 years ago this spring. She estimates the rehabilitation center has cared for more than 5,000 injured animals.
“I just feel grateful that I’m able to be in their presence and help them heal,” Bye said. “When you release them back to the wild — because there’s just a gratitude that goes along with it — I can either cry (tears of joy) or smile. When people are around, I always smile.”
The list of patients includes a wide range of animals, from chipmunks and porcupines to deer and elk.
The idea of opening a wildlife rehabilitation center, Bye said, came from Colorado Parks and Wildlife employee Jim Hicks, who often visited his classroom before he retired in 1996. After one visit, Bye asked what he would take to open a center. Bye’s home was located on seven acres, so she filled the first requirement, and the rest she would learn.
“We got a lot of injured animals that were turned in to us, and we would take them to the vet, but then we needed somebody to take care of them afterwards,” said Hicks, who brought an injured hawk to Bye not long after she expressed an interest. “I helped her out quite a bit when she first started and I took her plenty of animals.”
In the last 30 years, Born Free has become a part of Bye’s life, and she treasures the experiences that came along with the center.
“Every year there was a standout one,” Bye said of the animals she cared for. “Usually, that’s the one I wrote my stories about.”
She remembers getting a baby beaver, named Bullseye, one summer who wouldn’t eat. Her son, Garrett, stepped in and would not give up on the young animal. He started feeding the critter bananas.
“Garrett spent hours with that beaver trying to get it to eat, and finally it started eating,” Bye said. “We released him up in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area on this pond where we had seen beavers before.”
Bullseye returned to the wild, and the recovery was deemed a success. A year later, Bye and her son returned to the pond curious to see how Bullseye was fitting into his new neighborhood.
“All the other beavers left because we walked up to the water,” Bye said. “Garrett had bananas … and then Bullseye came swimming towards us, and we didn’t touch him or anything, but we’re just talking to him. Then Garrett put the bananas down on the edge of the water, and (Bullseye) still liked them.”
It’s experiences like this that keep Bye coming back year after year, and taking on the challenges that come with running a wildlife rehabilitation center.
Last weekend, she released a bald eagle just west of Steamboat Springs that fractured her pelvis in what she expects was a hard landing. The other was a golden eagle that was found with a bad case of avian pox.
Both birds were transported to the Birds of Prey Foundation in Broomfield shortly after being rescued and spent months recovering.
“Back when I first started, we hardly ever got eagles — maybe one every three years or something like that,” Bye said. “Now, it’s like 20 eagles a year or something like that. It’s not every year, but the numbers have been 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 bird-car collisions.
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 with hopes that birds of prey will stop feeding on those remains and consuming the small lead shards left behind after an animal is shot.
“I’m not slowing down,” Bye said. “I would say with more people moving into the area, the more animals that get hurt.”
Luckily, Bye has a full staff of volunteers and doesn’t need any more. She said it is still difficult at times to balance her paying jobs with the demands of running a rehabilitation center, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.