Raptor center near Ferndale in fight with feds over eagle program

Fish and Wildlife may remove 18 eagles from Sardis

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 3, 2013 

FERNDALE - Eighteen eagles at Sardis Raptor Center could be taken away by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service next week in a disagreement over the size of a cage and paperwork, the center's founder said.

That's how Sharon Wolters, who is also director of the center near Ferndale, characterized the situation she has been embroiled in since late in 2012, when she was notified that her permit to use eagles for an educational program had expired.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials declined to discuss details of the situation, including a deadline for the eagles' possible removal.

"I don't want to go into specifics because we're still working with them. If they want to release the details, that's up to them," said Jennifer Miller, chief of the agency's Migratory Bird Permit Office in Portland, Ore.

Founded in 1989, Sardis provides emergency trauma care for raptors, rehabilitates threatened or endangered raptors, and educates Washington residents about local birds of prey using birds that can't be released back into the wild.

Sardis remains open and will stay that way even if its inability to renew the education permit in question means officials will remove the 16 bald eagles and two golden eagles now at the center on Thursday, Aug. 8.

Wolters said that was the deadline she was given, unless she places the birds elsewhere first.

The center's other two permits - one to rehabilitate sick, injured or orphaned birds in the wild, and the other to use migratory birds for education - remain in good standing, according to Fish and Wildlife.

To renew the three-year permit, the agency wants a larger enclosure for a space that now holds 14 eagles that can't be released back into the wild, according to Wolters.

The birds are housed in roughly 2,700 square feet, Wolters said. She has been told the enclosure needs to be 7,600 square feet.

The size comes from minimum standards put forth by third-party organizations, including the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association and the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, officials said. It is based, in part, on the number of eagles.

"We have not requested that Sardis build a larger enclosure," Miller said. "We have stated that the eagles must receive the best possible care by being kept in an enclosure that meets minimum standards."

Wolters replied: "If they're worried about the care, then why were all my other permits just renewed? This is about paperwork and, to me, the birds are more important."

Wolters said she was fine with building a larger enclosure, although it would cost up to $30,000.

That's money the center doesn't have - although Wolters said she could contribute some of her own money - because its education program has been curbed and because of the economic downturn.

The education program pays for the cost of rehabilitation.

The center is accepting donations, but Wolters said people who do so will not be able to claim it as a tax-deductible donation until the center regains its federal nonprofit status, which lapsed because of IRS rule changes.

The tax status is adding to Sardis' troubles.

To keep eagles for education, an organization must be operated not for profit, Miller said, although Wolters said she didn't know if Miller was referring to federal status.

Sardis is organized as a not-for-profit corporation in the state, but Miller said "at this time, our office has not received documentation regarding Sardis' current status."

Meanwhile, Wolters said she feared the eagles would be euthanized because other centers don't have the resources or staff to care for them.

Fish and Wildlife officials said that's not going to happen.

"I would like to emphasize that we have no intention, and never had any intention, of euthanizing the eagles," Miller said. "We fully believe we will be able to place the eagles in permitted facilities where they can receive the best possible care."

LEARN MORE

Addiotnal information about Sardis Raptor Center is at sardisraptor.org.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

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