CHARLOTTE, NC (Joe Marusak/The Charlotte Observer) - Proposed rule changes could boot cougars, black bears and other animals from their homes on Grandfather Mountain, according to the nonprofit foundation that cares for the park.
State officials are suggesting the changes to improve public safety and animals' quality of life at all N.C. zoos, parks, education centers and rehab facilities.
One of the main suggestions involves expanding certain habitats, which can't be done at Grandfather Mountain in part because of the rugged terrain. Grandfather Mountain also faces the high cost of taller fencing, which it calls unnecessary given the park's long record of safety.
The park has never been found in violation of any habitat regulations, said Jesse Pope, executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation. That's a not-for-profit corporation established to preserve Grandfather Mountain.
Grandfather Mountain is concerned it will have to find other homes for some of its animals because of the new rules, which are being proposed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
A top commission official, however, said the agency wants no facility to suffer because of any changes.
"In no way do we have any intention to cause undue hardship on any facility," commission Executive Director Gordon Myers told the Observer this week.
The commission is required to review its captive-animal rules, along with other guidelines, every decade, which is why the new rules were proposed, he said. The proposed changes are based on what the Zoological Association of America found best in 2016, according to Myers. The commission intends to meet over the next six months with every facility affected by the proposed changes to settle on rules that will satisfy everyone, he said.
The public has until Friday to comment on the proposed new rules, which is why parks such as Grandfather Mountain mustered supporters to write the commission in recent weeks. Already, the commission has received 600 pages of public comment, which "I think is a good thing," Myers said.
Commission members are scheduled to vote on the changes on Dec. 7, but Myers said that likely won't happen.
"I'd certainly recommend that we go back and talk with the stakeholders directly," he said. He foresees one-on-one meetings with officials at places such as Grandfather Mountain.
Grandfather Mountain doesn't qualify as a zoo or education center, both of which have more lenient rules.
Grandfather Mountain follows the same guidelines as the N.C. Zoo, Greensboro Science Center and Western N.C. Nature Center and stays in regular touch with them, Pope said. Those places are all accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Grandfather Mountain also had the chairperson of the AZA accreditation board review its facilities, the foundation said in a letter to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission outlining its concerns.
Grandfather Mountain is asking people to sign its online letter, available at http://bit.ly/2mJwnaK, and email the copy to the commission by the end of Friday.
If the proposals pass, the decades-old park that attracts 300,000 visitors a year would be forced to expand its cougar habitat, which is impossible because of the rugged terrain, according to the foundation.
If the proposed changes were enacted, Grandfather Mountain would have to give its three cougars away to other facilities, Pope said.
The park near Linville also would have to find up to $700,000 to add higher fencing, expand habitats and make other renovations that park officials call unneeded.
The park, for instance, would have to raise the fencing surrounding its bear habitat to 12 feet, up from its longtime height of 10 feet with three-foot overhangs, the foundation said in its letter to the commission. The taller fencing would require stronger posts and other work and total about $400,000, Pope said.
Grandfather Mountain would have to find another $60,000 to $100,000 to expand its river otter habitat from the current 4 feet, 9 inches at its lowest point to 6 feet in all areas. Park officials call the expansion excessive. The habitat's current level matches the N.C. Zoo's, Pope said.
The park built its first habitat in 1973 for Mildred, a black bear adopted in 1968 by Grandfather Mountain founder Hugh Morton. Mildred, who died in 1993, helped inspire park leaders to add other habitats, including for cougars, bald eagles, American river otters, white-tailed deer and elk.
Trained, certified and experienced keepers watch and care for them, according to the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.
The park's visitors include nearly 15,000 North Carolina students who attend curriculum-based environmental education programs.
The commission is proposing changes in part "to update and modernize the captivity rules that were created many years ago" governing zoos and other places with wildlife, according to an online fact sheet from the commission. License holders would have until Jan. 1, 2019, to comply if commissioners OK the changes.
Grandfather Mountain didn't realize how profoundly the changes would impact its habitats until a Nov. 7 public hearing in Statesville, Pope said.
Just last year, Grandfather Mountain spent $285,000 improving its cougar habitat, of which $60,000 was state money from the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, Pope said. That money will have been wasted if the cougar habitat goes away, he said.