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Game and Fish research station tackles tough wildlife problems

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SYBILLE CANYON — Nestled along a creek bottom in a southeast Wyoming canyon is one of few wildlife research centers in the country.

The facility is understated — visible mostly because of its 8-foot tall fences and occasional glimpses of bull elk, bighorn sheep or bison. But its work over the last half a century has provided answers to critical wildlife questions ranging from gestational periods of pronghorn and bighorn sheep to how to successfully raise black-footed ferrets and Wyoming toads.

“It has provided a lot of insight and answers in understanding of disease and management techniques,” said Scott Edberg, deputy chief of the wildlife division for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “The facility has been on the leading edge of understanding wildlife physiology.”

And with recent renovations to ease wildlife handling for bighorn sheep, the Tom Thorne and Beth Williams Wildlife Research Center at Sybille continues to work on solutions to Wyoming’s most vexing wildlife problems.

Construction on the center began in the 1950s as a way to develop better wildlife management techniques and understand wildlife biology, said Dr. Mary Wood, Wyoming’s state wildlife veterinarian.

In the past 60 years, more than 100 academic papers or chapters in wildlife science books have emerged from work at the center.

Some of the earliest research was also some of the most basic.

“You take it for granted that you can Google the gestation of bighorn sheep, but we had to find that out at some point, and that was done in captivity,” Wood said. “It’s something super simple but at some point you have to learn that.”

Other work included study of nutritional needs of elk during pregnancy and what minerals, such as selenium and copper, some wildlife may require.

In 1987, the research center became the first place in the world to successfully breed black-footed ferrets, saving them from the brink of extinction. Biologists brought the remaining 18 ferrets from a ranch in Meeteetse to the center where experts there managed to expand the population, eventually working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to send them to zoos, other research stations and wild country across the West.

Wildlife managers use captive elk and moose at the facility to test management tools.

“We make sure GPS collars and radio transmitters are safe and when we put them on an animal they don’t interfere with their behavior or in any way harm the animal,” Wood said. “Doing that in captivity means we can intervene if there is a problem.”

Lastly, the center works on wildlife disease research. Its namesake, Tom Thorne and Beth Williams, were both known for their work on illnesses like chronic wasting disease and brucellosis before they died in a car wreck in 2004.

The center continues work on chronic wasting disease, and started studying pneumonia in bighorn sheep a few years ago, trying to better understand its lethal impact on lambs.

While most wildlife research in Wyoming involves herds in the field, the research center provides an invaluable way to limit variables, Wood said.

“Sometimes when you have a free-ranging herd you don’t know the other impacts, maybe you had a really hard winter and there wasn’t a lot of forage available,” Wood said. “Looking at these things in captivity can help you control that.”

The center is not a zoo, nor is it open to the public. Strict guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulate the center’s work with animals, and research is reviewed by members of the public and a veterinarian from outside the agency.

But drivers meandering along the winding curves of Highway 34 can use pullouts on the side of the road to admire elk, bison and bighorn sheep, knowing the work there could one day help herds across the West.

Follow managing editor Christine Peterson on Twitter @PetersonOutside


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