Why is Ogden evicting the only wildlife rehab center in northern Utah?

The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah is set to be evicted in September from its city-owned space.

(Benjamin Zack/Standard-Examiner, via AP) This July 6, 2017 photo shows Phoenix, a golden eagle at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah, in Ogden. Phoenix survived third-degree burns from a Utah wildfire and a bout with the West Nile virus that left him blind in one eye now has a job as an educational bird at a northern Utah wildlife rehabilitation center.

In March, DaLyn Marthaler, the executive director of the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah, received a letter from Ogden City that caught her off guard.

The letter said that after 13 years, the lease for the wildlife rescue, also known as WRCNU, would be terminated, and the group that had operated for more than a decade was slated to be evicted.

“We received a notice out of the blue — we had no idea it was coming — to vacate the premises within 180 days,” Marthaler, the WRCNU’s executive director, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “So we have until Sept. 6 to be out.”

Since getting that letter, Marthaler has been scrambling to find a new space that could properly accommodate the facility’s many wild animal patients — which can range from bald eagles to river otters. She said since WRCNU formed in 2009, the center has taken in thousands of animals every year.

But the reason for the eviction varies depending on who you ask.

Marthaler said her understanding is the center would be demolished to expand the nearby Ogden Dinosaur Park — potentially for a new parking lot. City leaders say that’s not necessarily the case. Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell said during a city council meeting last week the issue is over a contract issue with WRCNU.

In a statement Tuesday, an Ogden City spokesperson did confirm the city’s plan to expand the nearby Dinosaur Park, saying in the statement, “It has been the intention all along to demolish the old Ogden City Animal Services building (where WRCNU is housed) and make more room for Dinosaur Park expansion.

“We are as interested in the ongoing success of the refuge center and will work with them however possible while working through this transition period,” the statement said.

Either way, in the two months since the WRCNU was sent its notice, members of the Ogden City Council are caught in the middle, saying they still have not seen the construction plans for the dinosaur park if the wildlife center is evicted and don’t understand the timing by city administrators.

“I don’t know what the urgency is,” Ogden Council Chair Angela Choberka told The Tribune last Friday. “I haven’t really been given specifics.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A beaver gets a syringe of nutrient rich food from executive director DaLyn Marthaler to supplement its diet of aspen, willow, sweet potatoes and carrots in this file photo from April 4, 2013. The last three beavers to arrive at the rehab center are worse off for spending more time in the diesel-laden waters of Willard Bay. In March 2014, Utah officials approved a $5.35 million settlement agreement with Chevron Pipe Line Company, stemming from the 27,500-gallon diesel fuel spill at Willard Bay State Park in March 2013.

A ‘temporary arrangement’

The WRCNU was first formed in 2009 after the Ogden Nature Center decided to end its wildlife rehabilitation program, Marthaler said. The rescue moved into the building formerly occupied by Ogden City Animal Services, which had recently been discontinued and absorbed into Weber County Animal Services.

Initially, their agreement with the city would only last 180 days, but Marthaler recalled city officials saying back then WRCNU just had to prove their worth before making the deal long-term.

“It would just become a matter of fact that we occupied that building, and that would be our forever home after we had done those couple of years to prove that we could handle it,” Marthaler said.

In its statement, Ogden City said the deal with WRCNU back in 2010 was temporary, saying the deal was “meant to give them a space to operate while they sought out a permanent location.

“When the agreement was entered, there was never an expectation that they would remain 13 years due to the nature of the temporary arrangement,” the statement said.

No other home for injured animals

WRCNU cares for injured wild animals that likely would not receive treatment otherwise, and would either die or be left to deal with their injuries.

The Ogden wildlife rescue is the only of its kind in northern Utah, with the next closest facility being in Utah County. Marthaler said there are two people trying to start their own rescue in Salt Lake, but getting a permit requires working at a licensed facility for at least two years.

“If we don’t exist, or someone doesn’t exist, you can apprentice under, there’s going to be no more permits issued,” Marthaler said.

Since the eviction notice went out, the WRCNU has been public about its potential removal from city land. The eviction has caused the rescue to temporarily close starting May 15 and stop accepting new animal patients.

Marthaler said the WRCNU is caring for between 200 and 300 animals, mostly birds — they released a golden eagle back into the wild last week — and smaller mammals, like beavers, badgers and porcupines.

Earlier this month, the city and WRCNU both signed a forbearance agreement. The agreement, which was shared with The Tribune, says that if WRCNU can secure a lease with a new facility, the city will extend its eviction deadline, giving the rescue more time to move out.

But even if the WRCNU finds a new home, it doesn’t make up for the improvements and renovations it already has done to the current facility. Marthaler said in the years since first moving in, WRCNU has installed a new H-VAC system, new carpet and other projects.

“We had felt like we had done the due diligence, and we began to invest in the building,” she said.

‘I don’t see how this is serving anybody’

During an Ogden City Council meeting last week, numerous community members showed their support of the WRCNU, calling on the council to prevent the animal rescue from being kicked out. Because of the comments, members of the council began asking other city administrators about the situation.

Caldwell, the Ogden mayor, said the city and WRCNU are still in negotiations on what will happen.

“We were open to extending, and are still open to extending the process for this,” Caldwell said during the council meeting. “So nothing’s in stone yet. We’re still working through the process and trying to find an agreement that works for them that works for the city as well.”

Choberka said during the meeting last Tuesday she is not a proponent of letting a free lease with the city go on forever, but she questioned the timing, adding that constituents keep asking to see the plans for the dinosaur park as of now. Caldwell responded by saying council members would get a copy of the plans within the week.

In a text Tuesday, Choberka said she had still not received the plans from the city, saying, “my understanding is that it will be a couple of weeks.”

Council Member Ben Nadolski voiced his frustration with the situation during the meeting last week. He said the longer it takes for the city and WRCNU to sort out the eviction or dinosaur park expansion, the more frustrated and distrusting the public becomes.

“I don’t see how this is serving anybody being in this situation,” said Nadolski. “I don’t know, I just don’t see how this is serving the dinosaur park either.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of several rescued beavers gets one of its three baths of the day at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in this file photograph taken April 4, 2013. The three beavers that WRCNU were released back into the wild later that year. In March 2014, Utah officials approved a $5.35 million settlement agreement with Chevron Pipe Line Company, stemming from the 27,500-gallon diesel fuel spill at Willard Bay State Park in March 2013.

Going forward

Marthaler said in an email Tuesday she disputes Caldwell’s assertion that contractual issues led to the eviction notice going out.

“There were no issues,” she said Tuesday. “I would challenge him to come forward with any issues as well as any communication of those issues to us.”

Choberka said she understands the need for giving WRCNU a deadline, but given the licenses needed to operate a wildlife rescue, she doesn’t understand the rush. As far as the dinosaur park expansion, she added, as far as she knows, that’s not a rush.

“Why can’t we give them just a little bit more lead time to make the transition? Because they have been there for 12 years,” Choberka said Friday. “I think that’s where people have pulled in this whole issue with the dino park wanting to expand etc. … So honestly, I don’t know.”

In the meantime, WRCNU will continue to operate under the assumption they could be kicked out by September.