Zoo Idaho plan highlights include new wetland, addition of wolves

September 16, 2018

POCATELLO — Zoo Idaho should be in the business of breeding native trumpeter swans within the next couple of years, and may add a wolf exhibit in the longer term.

The projects are among the $5 million to $6 million in upgrades included in the zoo’s new comprehensive plan, a “living document” covering the city-owned facility’s growth throughout the next 20 years.

Other large projects planned by Zoo Idaho include the construction of a two-story log cabin that will house a gift shop, snack bar and restrooms; bridges on which wildlife will walk above zoo guests; and new exhibits for bald eagles and black bears.

Zoo Idaho Superintendent Peter Pruett said his organization plans to continue featuring only indigenous species, providing an opportunity to share a “conservation message” about native wildlife with guests.

The zoo has already built earthen dikes, installed a clay liner and flooded land in its upper area for an 8-acre wetland, which will support what Pruett believes will be a unique trumpeter swan breeding program.

Pruett said trumpeter swans in the Greater Yellowstone population mysteriously haven’t been reproducing at sustainable levels, and his planned program will seek to bolster numbers in their historic strongholds, starting with the Bear Lake area.

“As we release these swans, it takes a few years for them to find a mate, and hopefully they come back to these regions and start reproducing,” Pruett said, adding that new zoo staff will have to be brought on board to aid in the effort.

Pruett said Zoo Idaho will partner with School District 25, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to release “white birds,” which are swans that are just over a year old.

Pruett envisions first-, second- and third-graders turning white birds loose to rebuild populations, and tracking their birds online from a website linked to radio collars or a GPS signal.

The zoo’s education curator is working on a grant to involve local school students in research at the wetland, such as water-quality testing and wildlife surveys. Pocatello and New Horizon high schools have agreed to participate.

The zoo is in the process of planting 1,000 plugs of native plants and wildflowers. They hope to attract nesting birds and pollinators, such as monarch butterflies and bumble bees. Two bat “condominiums” are planned, and aquatic vegetation, such as lily pads and cattails, will be incorporated in the spring.

Pruett said the zoo — which rescues wildlife that aren’t capable of surviving in the wild — will wait about two years to bring in the trumpeter swans, allowing time for vegetation to establish itself.

The zoo already has about $125,000 to invest the project — including grants from Partners for Fish and Wildlife, zoo operating budget funds and contributions from the Zoo Idaho Zoological Society — but still has some money to raise.

Cary Myler, a Partners for Fish and Wildlife biologist, operated heavy equipment to help build the wetland. Myler has also been working with private landowners in the Teton area on developing wetlands. Myler said trumpeters live to be about 20 and mate for life, but they’ve been mostly breeding in Canada.

“We see lots of swans in migration, but currently the number of breeding pairs has been reduced,” Myler said.

He believes the loss of local habitat due to the draining of wetlands is a primary reason for the breeding trend.

Myler said the zoo’s wetland will showcase different types of habitat and natural processes — for example, water levels will be allowed to recede to attract nesting birds.

Within the next decade or two, Pruett said the comprehensive plan calls for the zoo to exhibit a species that has spurred a controversial reintroduction debate, and drawn countless visitors to Yellowstone National Park for the chance to glimpse it in the wild — the gray wolf.

“We’re Zoo Idaho, and I think we need to have a wolf exhibit,” Pruett said. “There are no ifs ands or buts about it.”

Several other projects in the plan are already completed, under construction or in the fundraising stage. The zoo recently completed the first phase of new exhibits for elk and for bison and pronghorns. Pruett said the previous exhibit commingled elk and bison, which are difficult for zookeepers to manage together and aren’t typically found together in the wild.

In a future phase, the zoo will build bridges, on which elk, bison, mule deer and pronghorns will walk above people, providing an opportunity to educate the public about wildlife overpasses, which are used to help wildlife safely cross busy highways.

The zoo received a $10,000 grant from the Ifft Foundation to build a new goat playground, which will include Teeter Totters, a goat fort and other equipment, on which children and goats will play together. The goat playground should be completed in time for use during Zoo Boo, a family Halloween event scheduled for Oct. 27.

The zoological society also launched an annual campaign in the spring, seeking 500 donors to each contribute $100. A separate capital campaign, in its third year, has already brought in about $100,000 to fund a gift shop near the zoo’s entrance. Pruett said with in-house labor from city departments, the total cost of the project should be between $200,000 and $300,000.

On Sept. 22, the zoo has scheduled a second-year fundraiser for adults, called OktoBEARfest. For a $25 admission, visitors will be allowed to explore the zoo while sampling beers from five vendors.

Three new raptor exhibits are planned, including a new bald eagle exhibit already under construction that will be funded with about $7,500 from the zoo’s operating budget. The current raptor exhibit will be converted into a pavilion.

Once the gift shop is completed, building a new black bear exhibit will be the zoo’s next priority. Pruett said the current black bear exhibit is “archaic and barely meets standards.” The zoo’s goal is to significantly exceed standards.

Implementing the list of improvements in the comprehensive plan would enable the zoo to meet its goal of obtaining accreditation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Pruett said.

“My goal is to have a world-class facility,” Pruett said.

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