In 1983, not long after the closing of the for-profit Red Lodge Zoo, a group of area residents decided to start a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to caring for local injured, orphaned, and habituated wildlife that can’t be released into the wild. It was formed that year as the Red Lodge Zoological Society, but changed its name to the Beartooth Nature Center around the time the facility opened in Red Lodge’s Coal Miner Park.
Over the years, the Beartooth Nature Center took in hundreds of animals with no place else to go. The original Executive Director, Ruth Brown, built up a dedicated staff and a cadre of volunteers that helped to build the facility and care for the animals. In its early days, the Nature Center provided homes for some non-native animals ranging from turtles to domestic goats and ducks. The domestics were phased out in favor of wildlife, and the mission began to focus.
One of the largest groups of volunteers has been the gardening crew. Board member Clare Witcomb started the gardens in 2001, originally as a fairly small project, and then Andrew Kruger, owner of Gray Gardens Landscaping in Minneapolis, showed up one summer with a team of landscapers and donated over $50,000 worth of plants and supplies. Today our gardens are a huge part of what makes our sanctuary a place of peace and beauty for the guests and the animals.
In 2012, our name was changed to the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary. The term “wildlife sanctuary” better describes what we are. The word “Yellowstone” refers not to the national park, but to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem of which we are a part.
In 2018, the last of the non-native species (our turtles) were relocated to another sanctuary, and our mission statement was updated to reflect our focus on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Today, every species of animal under our care is native to this ecosystem.