Fontenelle Forest is taking another wild thing under its wing.
The conservation organization, perched in woods above the Missouri River in Bellevue and Omaha, is acquiring Raptor Recovery Nebraska, an organization that cares for injured and orphaned predatory birds.
The bird rehabilitation and education unit will be known as Fontenelle Forest's Raptor Recovery. The deal broadens Fontenelle Forest's horizons westward and keeps Raptor Recovery's program flying.
Laura Shiffermiller, executive director of Fontenelle Forest, said the arrangement is a milestone in the organization's 100-year history and will raise its profile across Nebraska by tapping into Raptor Recovery's statewide volunteers and educational programs. The two nonprofit organizations share similar missions.
“We preserve and educate about a large ecosystem, while they preserve and educate about a smaller part of that ecosystem,'' she said. “This really enriches our program. We think we'll mesh beautifully.''
Betsy Finch, executive director of Raptor Recovery, said the arrangement will allow the bird rehabilitation programs she started 37 years ago in Elmwood, Neb., to soar.
“It ensures our continuity, and we'll be able to reach even more people,'' she said.
Fontenelle Forest's board of directors approved the acquisition Wednesday. Raptor Recovery's board previously OK'd the deal. The merger goes into effect July 1.
The 90,000 annual visitors to Fontenelle Forest will have a chance to see about a dozen more raptors after the nature center builds new dwellings to display the birds.
The nature center currently has about four raptors. Raptor Recovery's treatment and rehabilitation center near Elmwood, a Cass County community east of Lincoln, will be closed to the public.
Fontenelle Forest's development and marketing muscle will benefit Raptor Recovery's educational programs, said Denise Lewis of Bellevue, Raptor Recovery's outreach coordinator and a part-time Fontenelle Forest educator.
Fontenelle Forest operates on a $2.5 million annual budget generated by donations, memberships and fees. Eighteen of the 50 people on the payroll are full-time employees. About 230 volunteers help with everything from guiding hikes to baking apple pies for fundraisers.
Raptor Recovery's $80,000 to $90,000 annual budget comes entirely from donations. The organization works closely with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but receives no state or federal funds.
Finch, Lewis and Janet Stander, assistant rehabilitation coordinator, are part-time Raptor Recovery employees. They will be full-time Fontenelle Forest employees after the merger.
Lewis said Raptor Recovery has struggled to raise money to finance its operations.
“Every year it gets a little harder. Every year we get a little older,'' Lewis said.
Lewis said unification talks started last year when Rick Schmid, the nature center's education director, inquired about a more permanent alliance. The two organizations have operated closely for the past few years. Under the new arrangement, Raptor Recovery will dissolve its nonprofit status and Fontenelle Forest will take over Raptor Recovery's assets.
“We'll just be transferring the assets of one public charity to another,'' Shiffermiller said.
Fontenelle Forest is one of Nebraska's oldest conservation organizations and is one of the largest private nature centers in the nation. Fontenelle Forest Nature Center in Bellevue and Neale Woods in Omaha preserve nearly 2,000 acres of forest, prairie and wetlands along the Missouri River.
The deal is part of Fontenelle Forest's goal to develop a more visible regional and national profile, Shiffermiller said. It operates a variety of programs and activities for all ages under the forest canopy.
Raptor Recovery receives hundreds of injured, sick, poisoned or orphaned birds of prey each year. Finch and her volunteers have cared for more than 11,000 raptors. Raptor Recovery's treatment center currently houses nearly 80 birds, many of which were injured in collisions with vehicles or electrical wires. Some suffer from lead poisoning. Federal law strictly protects raptors, but some have been shot.
A statewide network of volunteers provides emergency care and transports raptors to the Elmwood treatment center.
Once restored to health, the birds are banded and released. One of the latest releases was a gray-phase Eastern screech owl returned to urban habitat in Omaha's Benson neighborhood.
In some cases, birds cannot be released back to the wild because severe injuries or illness leaves them unable to fly or hunt.
When possible, nonreleasable birds are routed into breeding programs, recruited as foster parents for young orphans, used in research or join the roster of “education birds'' taken to schools and other places to increase awareness about raptors. Shiffermiller said having more raptors at Fontenelle Forest will not only give people greater opportunities to see birds of prey up close, but also allow naturalists to tell the story of rehabilitating ailing birds.
“These birds survive — and many of them return to the wild — because of the work Raptor Recovery does,'' she said.
Raptors are large predatory birds with a strong, sharply curved and pointed beak and curved talons.
Twenty-seven species of raptors can be found in Nebraska during an average year. Most are migratory, such as bald eagles, Swainson's hawks and Mississippi kites. Permanent residents include red-tailed hawks, great horned owls and American kestrels.
Eagles, hawks and falcons: Bald eagle, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, osprey, northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper's hawk, northern goshawk, red-shouldered hawk, broad-winged hawk, Swainson's hawk, ferruginous hawk, rough-legged hawk, merlin, prairie falcon, gyrfalcon, American kestrel, turkey vulture and Mississippi kite.
Owls: Great horned, snowy, barn, barred, Eastern screech, burrowing, long-eared, short-eared and Northern saw-whet.
Source: Raptor Recovery Nebraska