Tom Thorne/Beth Williams
Wildlife Research Center at Sybille
2362 Highway 34
Wheatland, Wyoming 82201
In 1948, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department purchased 3,081 acres of land, known at the Johnson Creek Wildlife Habitat Management Area, to serve as winter range for mule deer and to provide the public with recreational hunting and fishing opportunities.
The Johnson Creek WHMA was also an ideal location for a wildlife research facility. It provided easy access, adequate space for pastures and holding pens, had diverse terrain, cover and weather conditions and was close to support facilities located at the University of Wyoming and the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory. Development of the research facility began in 1952 under the direction of Floyd Blunt and continues today.
Sybille was the first facility of its kind and remains one of the country's leading state wildlife research facilities. Development of techniques that can be directly applied to wildlife management in the state has been the focus of research at the Thorne Williams Unit. Wildlife disease research on brucellosis, chronic wasting disease and pasteurellosis (pneumonia), and endangered species capture, propagation, nutrition, physiology and genetics have been studied there. Efforts are continuously being made to develop improved handling, anesthesia and general wildlife techniques.
The effort to save the black-footed ferret, Mustella nigripes, has been a long and cooperative process between state and federal agencies. The discovery of black-footed ferrets near Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981 offered new hope for a species long-thought extinct. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department initiated a captive breeding program in 1987 after an outbreak of canine distemper threatened the population in the wild. For the next 10 years, the Thorne Williams Unit was at the forefront of recovery. Many protocols developed at the unit for captive propagation, husbandry, pre-conditioning, and reintroduction are still in use today. A Species Survival Plan was also developed, and several zoos were recruited to assist with captive propagation. The captive population grew quickly from its meager beginnings of 18 ferrets to more than 250 ferrets. Since then over 5,000 ferrets have now been produced in captivity with more than 1,500 reintroduced to the wild. Conservation efforts at the Thorne Williams Unit have helped bring the ferret back from the brink of extinction. In 1996, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department transferred the program to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who moved the ferrets from the Thorne Williams Unit to a new facility near Ft. Collins, Colorado, in 2006.
As with ferrets, the effort to save the Wyoming toad, Bufo baxteri, has also been a cooperative effort among state and federal agencies and private landowners. The Wyoming toad was common from the 1950s through the early 1970s, but its distribution was limited to the Laramie Basin in Albany County. The population crashed around 1975 and was extremely rare by 1980. The Wyoming toad was federally listed as endangered in January 1984. To prevent extinction, a captive breeding program was begun in 1989 at the Thorne Williams Unit. This program produced enough offspring in the first few years to supply seven different zoos, and in 1998 the Saratoga National Fish Hatchery received captive breeding stock. Between 1995 and 2006, when the remaining captive stock was moved from the Thorne Williams Unit to the Red Buttes Environmental Biology Laboratory south of Laramie, nearly 46,000 offspring were produced at the Thorne Williams Unit and released back into the wild.
Research facilities at the Thorne Williams unit are unavailable to the public for safety and security reasons. However, large, semi-natural enclosures to the east of the research facility contain elk, deer, bighorn sheep and bison that the public can easily view from Highway 34. Early morning hours are usually the best times to observe any wildlife.