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Veterinarian Summer Winger of Circle S Mobile Vet gives Better the bobcat, a permanent Earthfire Institute resident, a dental cleaning and claw trim, and removes foxtails from his chin.

A wildlife sanctuary in Tetonia is quietly fundraising to expand its facility and forward its mission of connecting people with the natural world.

“We live in an incredible valley with incredible privilege,” said Earthfire Institute founder Susan Eirich, Ph.D. “It’s up to us to preserve it. People who visit are aghast at the wonder of it. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the last great places in the world, and it brings such a joy and enhancement to our lives.”

Earthfire, founded in 2000, is working to raise its profile locally, although the sanctuary is only open to the public in a limited capacity; groups are allowed to book private retreats or visits in order to “meet and connect deeply with wildlife,” said Eirich.

“It’s because we’re a sanctuary, not a zoo,” she added. “We want people to have the most profound experience possible with an animal, without disrupting the animal’s safety and quality of life.”

Buoyed by a catalytic donation, in 2020 Earthfire embarked on a $5-10 million growth initiative plan to update its animal gardens, enclosures (including a waterfall for every bear), and rehabilitation program, as well as upgrading its retreat facilities. Building a larger staff of animal handler apprentices, rehabilitation specialists, outreach directors, and facility managers is another big line item in the budget. View the entire plan at earthfireinstitute.org.

“After 20 years of piecemeal growth based on a shoestring budget, we now have a complete plan for building key infrastructure components, including cohesive plumbing, electrical systems, energy systems, and irrigation management,” reads the nonprofit’s capital campaign plan.

Part of that project includes preserving land along the valley’s migration corridor; Earthfire acquired a 120-acre property that includes part of South Leigh Creek, which is prime wildlife range.

Earthfire generally does not engage in advocacy on a local level. “We’re not into policy, we do education,” Eirich said. “Although we have submitted thoughts in response to some development in support of preserving migration corridors.”

Instead, she continued, the ultimate goal is to export Earthfire’s message around the world.

“Being a part of the larger ecosystem enriches us. We take the stories of the animals here and spread them throughout the world, and people around the world are quite excited by it. And yet we also have a grounded and very specific local mission, to help injured wildlife in our area and focus on native species here.”

Permanent residents at the center include wolves, bears, mountain lions, and other mammals that were rescued or adopted from a variety of circumstances. Meanwhile, many of the injured or orphaned wild animals that are brought to Earthfire can be rehabilitated and released back into their native habitat.

“Community is not just the ice rink and the church and the civic center, it’s the animals and the trees,” Eirich said. “We live in that community, but many act as if we don’t. We’re trying to work to change people’s perception and understanding of that, so they make different decisions, take more care, combine their sense of community with science.”