Conservation Outdoors

Conservation: How Wildlife Fit into the Conservation Puzzle

Wildlife rehabilitation expert Nancy Vergara releases rehabbed Sharpie back to its home range. Photo by Stephanie Smith

By Emma Castleberry

When you hear the word “conservation,” what comes to mind? For many of us, conservation is a word we associate with large swaths of wild, protected land. While this association isn’t wrong, it is incomplete. “Those environments thrive because of the niches that the wildlife fill within them,” says Savannah Trantham, executive director and co-founder of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge (AWR). “So if we’re focusing on conserving the places, we hopefully—naturally—flow into preserving and conserving the species that call it home.”

In addition to the important predator and prey relationships in every ecosystem, there are other, more subtle ways that wildlife fill various roles. Trantham uses the example of beavers, which, just by going about their natural dam-building behaviors, are supporting the aquatic life around them.

Screech Owl. Photo by Stephanie Smith

Western North Carolina residents, on the whole, are lovers of nature. “So many people moved here and stayed here because they want that connection to nature, the environment,” says Trantham. But well-meaning locals might not always have the tools or information necessary to care for wildlife properly. That’s where AWR comes in. “The beautiful thing about AWR is that we’re in a position that we can be those stewards for both humans and animals,” says Trantham. “When those humans find animals that need help, they bring them to us and we intervene and provide care and put them back. We’re filling this gap in between the bad things that are happening to wildlife and returning them to their niche.” As upsetting as every injured and orphaned animal may be, each encounter provides an opportunity for education. “This is the outcome of what somebody did,” says Trantham, “and this is how you can prevent this in the future.”

Nancy Vergara has been volunteering with AWR since 2017. She first encountered the organization when she rescued a rabbit from a cat attack. AWR connected her with a home-based rehabilitator for the rabbit because their facility was still under construction. “After I got involved with AWR, I saw the need for places to take these animals that got injured,” says Vergara. “When your dog gets sick, when your cat gets hurt, you have the vet you take it to. All wildlife has no one to watch over it and a lot of their injuries are done because of us. We hit them with a car, we destroy their habitat, we destroy their nest, our cats kill the mom or injure the baby. A lot of the injuries and orphans that are brought to AWR are caused by humans.”

Snapping turtle with shotgun injury to face. Photo by Stephanie Smith

Vergara says she sees the AWR mission as two-fold: both rehabilitating and re-releasing wildlife into the wild and educating the public on how to coexist with animals. As the leader of the AWR hotline team, Vergara fields many calls about wildlife interaction. “We get calls about the bear eating my grapes, the groundhog eating my tulips,” she says. “This was their land before we came in. We have to have space for these animals.”

Orphaned skunk

AWR is the only facility of its kind in NC. The nonprofit runs solely on donations and works with more than 2,000 animals each year. Their hotline fields almost 5,000 calls a year. But even with all this hard work, there is still so much more to be done in the world of wildlife conservation. “We cannot keep up with the need,” says Trantham. “There could be four facilities like ours and they would all be full, all the time. We’re working to grow and meet that need to the best of our ability so that there is a place for wildlife in our area.”

In addition to supporting the work of AWR, Trantham explains that small changes in behavior, like using safer lawn care methods that aren’t toxic or dangerous to wildlife, can create a wave of huge change in the survival and thriving of wildlife in our area. “When we see people making a difference and putting in the effort and being very intentional about making some changes, even if they’re small, and it’s just one thing, we start seeing that overall effect,” she says.

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