The San Bernardino Mountains Wildlife Society (SBMWS), the vision and passion of Diane Dragotto Williams, has been in existence since 1994. A long-time resident of the Lake Arrowhead mountain community, Diane was concerned about the vanishing forest habitat and the decline of wildlife as development engulfed the area. In the early 1990s, Diane and a small group of concerned citizens began taking care of injured wildlife in their homes. With training from Fish and Wildlife, and the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, these dedicated individuals were able to treat and release many injured birds and small mammals back into the forest. However, there was nowhere to keep the rehabbed wildlife that could not be released.
In 1997, the San Bernardino Mountains Wildlife Society received its non-profit status as a 501c3. The fledging organization found support with Assemblyman Bill Leonard and state Senator Jim Brulte, who included the newly formed nonprofit in a state bond issue. The bond passed, which provided funding for a sanctuary. In 2000 the organization acquired 35 acres from the Forest Service and founded Wildhaven Ranch in the community of Cedar Glen. The initial mission back in 1994 was basically the same as it is today:
By caring for animals unable to return to the wild, Wildhaven Ranch’s primary focus is to educate the public about the protection and conservation of the San Bernardino Mountains ecosystem, wildlife and natural habitats.
As the facility grew, the focus of the board and management was always on the animals. However, as more and more animals were rescued and facilities needed to expand, procuring funding became tighter and tighter. Despite community support, there were not sufficient funds for hiring staff or to implement modern business systems and practices. There also were not sufficient funds to expand habitats and buildings for the animals and birds that needed rescue.
In 2003, along with much of the Cedar Glen community, Wildhaven Ranch was devastated by the horrific “Old Fire”. Although Diane and the volunteers were able to move all the animals safely off the mountain to other wildlife facilities, most of the buildings and enclosures were destroyed. Because of the nature of the structures, the insurance covered only 50% of value for each structure and enclosure, hampering what Wildhaven could rebuild. All animal enclosures were rebuilt, due to grants, the gift of a retirement fund from Roger and Diane Williams, and a loan of an inheritance from Diane Dragotto Williams, but many of the support buildings were not finished by the insurance payout.
SBMWS was able to acquire a small parcel at the east entrance to Wildhaven from the owner who did not wish to rebuild after the fire. The parcel was acquired for the visitor/education center, which is still in the planning stage.
In 2007, the State Attorney General’s Office elected to appoint the SBMWS to dissolve the Natural Heritage Foundation located in Big Bear and receive the organizations assets (132 acres located at the south end of Baldwin Lake). The SBMWS/Wildhaven Ranch now holds title to this property.
During 2010, the economy entered a deep recession which put any expansion efforts on hold. Efforts were directed on re-establishing community support, attracting volunteers, publicity and fundraising activities.
Diane Dragotto Williams was named the President and Executive Director in 1994, and has served in that position since, as well as, General Curator. Diane along with a dedicated team of volunteers formed a strong partnership with California Fish and Wildlife and US Fish and Wildlife that resulted in thousands of rehabbed animals being released back into the wild, and those that could not be released finding a home at Wildhaven Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary. Today the residents continue to serve as ambassadors for their wild cousins; they teach people to love and respect wild animals and the habitats that are critical for wildlife survival.