BILLINGS — Construction crews will break ground on the Foster Waterfowl Refuge this summer at ZooMontana in Billings, bringing a much-needed update to what zoo Executive Director Jeff Ewelt called the "ugliest part" of the zoo.
“This area has been the bane of our existence for the last literally 15 years. When the aviary that used to be here was torn out, we just could not wrap our brains around what to do here," Ewelt told MTN news Wednesday.
The area is generally located east of the grizzly bear habitat, ending near the North American river otter habitat. The area is filled now mostly with grass and a variety of trees.
Once complete, the refuge will have a water habitat filled with native fish species. It will also be a place where migratory waterfowl can come and go as they please.
“That’s what makes it unique is that it is going to be built essentially for those birds flying through. We’re excited about that, and it is going to be something a little bit different in our world. And we’re excited to be able to implement that here at ZooMontana," Ewelt said.
Every time zoo staff have tried to renovate the area, the funding just hasn't come through, Ewelt said. An initial donation from Billings resident Cynthia Foster and her family jump-started others to donate, allowing zoo staff to kick off the project, Ewelt said.
"On behalf of (Foster's) family, they wanted to do a memorial for her husband Paul Milan and gave a lead gift. That then spurred other gifts and got us to the $900,000 mark that we needed to make this exhibit happen," Ewelt said.
The refuge will be named in the Foster family's honor. About 80 percent of the $900,000 project was funded from donations, Ewelt said. Other contributors included Ducks Unlimited, Phillips 66 and a slew of other private donors.
The refuge will add to the zoo by improving the look and function of the space and offer waterfowl a good place to stop near the edge of the urban density of Billings.
“It is going to beautify the zoo, which we desperately need in this area. Then two, it is going to offer a really important migration point for waterfowl in conjunction with the Shiloh Conservation Area just up the street. So, a great urban escape for waterfowl. It’s going to be a refuge for native fish and we hope potentially sturgeon," Ewelt said.
A section of what will become the Foster Waterfowl Refuge currently serves as a home for three Chinese geese. Ewelt said the geese will move to a foster home off-site at a home in Billings. The nearby otter exhibit will stay in place, but will get a renovation this spring, Ewelt said.
Since the refuge will bring in animals that ZooMontana hasn't had before, it will offer new opportunities to educate patrons about a different aspect of the local environment, Ewelt said.
"The educational aspect of it is going to be huge. In conjunction with Ducks Unlimited and Phillips 66, we really want to hit the wetland ecology and the wetland education hard here to give an opportunity for kids and adults to learn about wetlands," Ewelt said.
Groundbreaking is scheduled for this summer and the project will likely be complete sometime in 2022. Ewelt said zoo staff are being conscious about construction, due to a rise in the price of construction materials that has been seen over the past few months nationwide.
“With construction costs as they are right now, we want to be very mindful that we build this responsibly. We’re working with Land Design, a local company, fantastic. In a perfect world, if we could get everything started and get construction going this year, we will be happy. With the understanding that it will probably take a good year or year and a half or maybe two years to get this to the point where it’s fully complete," Ewelt said.
Ewelt said the start of the waterfowl refuge project is a sign that ZooMontana is moving full speed ahead, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We’re growing at a pretty incredible rate. Even with the pandemic, we’re still able to move forward with this project. That means the world to us. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for the incredible community really rallying behind us and helping us get through that tough time. This exhibit is just, I think, a prime example of how we were able to weather that storm and move forward and continue to offer what we can to the community of Billings," Ewelt said.