Nature in the Beartooth

By jeff ewelt

Dedicated to the preservation of Montana’s wildlife and habitats, the Beartooth Nature Center located in Red Lodge, houses native Montana wildlife that can no longer be returned to the wild. Animals are brought into the center due to debilitating injury, abandonment or human interference. Every animal brought into the center is filtered through Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks or the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

The center currently houses 60 animals of 30 different species, ranging from mountain lions to wolves to bald eagles. Guests will not only be impressed with the close proximity they can get to these majestic animals, but also be touched by the tales that brought them to the center. Whether it is a poacher that took their mother or the strike of a car, each animal has a story to tell. Take for example Harry the Magpie. Raised for years by media mogul Ted Turner, this lovable bird still mutters the sounds of black tie dinners. A recently unearthed photo of Harry shows him posing with Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Beartooth Nature Center has been a staple in Red Lodge for over 80 years. Two fur traders initially established BNC. At the turn of the century, animal furs were a means to make a moderate living and in 1924 the two leased a parcel of land that came to be known as the Beartooth Silver Fox and Fur Farm. As the two gathered fur-bearing animals for their farm, the number of acquisitions grew steadily. It wasn’t long before crowds of curious Red Lodge residents were asking to visit the farm and its increasing animal family. The number of varying species continued to grow along with public pressure and the fur farm was renamed the “See ‘Em Alive Zoo.” The zoo changed hands many times over the next several decades and in 1976 it was moved several miles north of Red Lodge where it grew to include more than 200 animals! In 1983 the Red Lodge Zoo closed its doors as a private family business due to the tremendous responsibility and time needed to care for the animals. Immediately after the zoo closure, local citizens and regular visitors were extremely disappointed and a group of Red Lodge citizens formed the Red Lodge Zoological Society and re-opened the Red Lodge Zoo, establishing it as a non-profit entity. The Red Lodge Zoo held its grand opening in Coal Miner’s Park (the current location of the BNC) in the summer of 1988 as a children’s petting zoo and hoofed animal display. From this petting zoo developed the Beartooth Nature Center. The name and mission of BNC changed in 1990 and the animal and educational operations have continued to expand ever since.

As the Beartooth Nature Center continues to grow, so do its visions. The center has just recently launched a capital campaign to move the entire facility 5 miles north of Red Lodge. The new site has a large portion of wetland, which will be left in its natural state to be used to educate visitors on the importance of wetland ecology. The area will also be utilized for future conservation projects. All animal exhibits will be larger and built to blend in with natural surroundings. The entire center will be built to parallel the accreditation standards of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  The theme of BNC’s new facility will be “Experience Montana.”   Guests will be invited into the visitor center to experience exhibits featuring Montana’s natural and cultural history.  They will then pass through the back doors to experience Montana’s wilderness and wildlife.  The art/visitor center, built in compliance to green standards, will house exhibits, several classrooms, a gift shop and a children’s play area.  During the evening hours, the entire facility will have the ability to be transformed into a rental facility capable of serving over 400 people. SFM

For more information on Beartooth Nature Center, please visit www.beartoothnaturecenter.org, then visit us in person!