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Cochrane Ecological Institute prepares for 8th annual Christmas tree fundraiser

The Cochrane Ecological Institute is hosting its annual Christmas tree fundraiser, hoping to raise crucial funds to support the important work it does, and provide habitat for the grazing residents at the facility.
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Cochrane Ecological Institute director Ken Weagle, left, and president Clio Smeeton stand in front of their buffalo hold on June 27. (Chelsea Kemp/The Cochrane Eagle)

COCHRANE— The Cochrane Ecological Institute is getting ready to host its eighth annual Christmas Tree Fundraiser, which is more important than ever this year, said Institute president Clio Smeeton.

The Cochrane Ecological Institute plays a crucial role in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of wildlife in the region around Cochrane.

On a regular year, the Institute has steady sustainable income from the Happy Tails Pet Retreat, a pet care business that looks after people’s pets as they travel. 

This year, because no one is travelling, no one is boarding their pets at the Cochrane Ecological Institute, so that source of revenue has been lost, Smeeton said.

“Lots of people think that the provincial or the federal government pay for wildlife rehab, but they don’t,” Smeeton said. “It’s not within their mandate to do that so they don’t. It’s just a fact and always has been, so we have to raise the money.”

This year, the Institute is reliant on revenue from various fundraisers and the kindness of community organizations and individuals who donate.

The Christmas tree fundraiser is typically a critical fundraiser for the Institute, which hosts a large gathering for the people who attend. 

This year, Smeeton said, the event will look a little different due to the pandemic.

“Normally it’s a bit more of a fiesta,” she said. “Last year we had Christmas goodies, and we had music, and we had hotdogs and coffee. But this year, because of COVID-19, we can’t do that.”

This year, she said, the event will be structured like a drive-thru, where attendees will enter the property, drive down to the tree collection location where volunteers will be on hand to cut the tree, load it up and even trim the tree if it is too tall.

The trees are all freshly cut on the same days of the fundraiser, Dec. 5 and 6.

The process of clearing the trees must be done anyway, as it provides crucial habitat for several resident species at the Institute, Smeeton said.

“Unlike the rest of the area around here, this is a very heavily wooded piece of land. It was never logged and never farmed because it’s too uneven and too wet,” she said. “We have the bison, and the elk and the mule deer here too, and they eat grass, so we have to keep some of the pasture open to provide grazing ... So every year we take some of the trees off to keep some of the prairie, the open spaces, open for the bison,” she said.

Clearing the trees in December is just an added opportunity to provide beautiful Christmas trees for residents in the area.

The trees cost $30 each, but paying a bit extra for a tree counts as a donation towards the Institute, and becomes a tax-deductible contribution to the charity.

“Normally it’s a lot of fun and people really enjoy it and they’re doing it for a very, very good cause because no government pays for it, so we have to raise the money.”