Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on San Juan Island, which cares and rehabilitates for orphaned seal pups, has discontinued that program because of a lack of money.

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FRIDAY HARBOR — For more than 30 years, seal pups in need of care have gotten it at Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on San Juan Island.

But this year Wolf Hollow will not be able to accept orphaned, injured or sick seal pups found on area beaches. That will limit where pups can be taken for care and rehabilitation.

A grant program from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has helped keep Wolf Hollow’s seal program afloat, but without being able to secure grant funding the past two years, the center has been forced to discontinue the program.

Directors of the regional groups that help stranded marine mammals say they are worried about a lack of local rehabilitation options, especially with seal pups typically being seen between May and August.

“Here in the Central Puget Sound area, we have no place to rehabilitate pups,” said Sandy Dubpernell, principal investigator for the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

The network responds to seal-pup strandings in Skagit, Snohomish and Island counties, and is one of many networks in the region that have relied heavily on Wolf Hollow’s program.

Loss of a program

Wolf Hollow has rehabilitated 704 seal pups since starting its seal program in 1984, Education Coordinator Shona Aitken said. Of those, 20 were brought to the facility from beaches in Skagit County.

The center accepts wildlife primarily from San Juan and Skagit counties, but also serves Whatcom, Island and northern Snohomish counties.

If a seal pup is found on a beach and is unlikely to survive, stranding networks can transport it to a rehabilitation center to be cared for until it is ready to be released back into the wild.

Getting a seal pup ready for release costs about $3,000. That covers facility space, staff time, food, medication and lab tests, Aitken said.

Wolf Hollow has relied heavily on NOAA’s John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program to cover those costs since the grant program started in 2001.

Wolf Hollow received $745,444 through the grant program between 2001 and 2014. In 2015 and 2016, Wolf Hollow received no Prescott grant funding.

NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said there is simply not enough funding to support all qualifying programs every year.

In 2015, for example, NOAA received grant applications seeking a combined $4.4 million in Prescott grant funding. But only $2.75 million was available.

Wolf Hollow staff said they hope to re-establish the seal program in the future if they can get enough funding through donations and other grant programs. Aitken said the center needs about $30,000 a year to care for up to 12 seal pups.

The Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network launched a fundraising effort to add space for seal pups at the Whatcom Humane Society’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Everson.

“This caught us off guard. We never had the need before,” said Victoria Souze, director of the Whatcom network. “We always had Wolf Hollow and they (stranded seal pups) always went there.”

The network has begun building a seal-pup holding facility at the Whatcom Humane Society center using donations. If approved by NOAA, the facility could take seal pups for short-term evaluation, Souze said.

The trouble is that without Wolf Hollow, PAWS Wildlife Center in Lynnwood is the only long-term seal-rehabilitation center in the state.

That center can care for up to five seal pups. It doesn’t have enough space to accommodate seals found on beaches in Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties in addition to its usual coverage area.

Wolf Hollow received about five pups each year from the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network alone, network coordinator Jennifer Olson said. Last year the Whatcom network sent nine seal pups to the facility.

Seal-pup safety

When a seal pup is found, it tends to draw attention.

Deception Pass State Park manager Jack Hartt said about a handful of seal pups are found each summer on park beaches. Keeping curious park visitors a safe distance from the animals is a challenge.

“There are federal regulations for the protection of these animals because human presence does endanger them and actually can kill them,” Hartt said.

Harbor seals are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Hartt has seen beach visitors try to help the seals — even take selfies with them — without realizing they are reducing the animals’ chances of surviving.

If beach visitors come across a seal pup, wildlife officials ask that they stay about a football field’s length away, keep dogs out of the area and report the sighting to a marine-mammal stranding network.

Network responders often wind up “seal sitting,” ensuring people and pets keep their distance while waiting a minimum 48 hours to see if the mother seal returns, according to NOAA.

It’s a common misconception that seal pups alone on the beach have been abandoned, said NOAA. They often come to shore to rest.

“Their best chance of surviving is for their mother to come back to them,” Olson said.