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A mountain lion at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center in 2023. (Photo by Brian Bergstrom / My Buckhannon)

USDA responds to wildlife center closure, says WVDNR has known of licensing issue since September

By Brian Bergstrom and Katie Kuba

BUCKHANNON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture told My Buckhannon on Thursday that the West Virginia State Wildlife Center has had ‘several months to come into compliance’ with fencing regulations but was often ‘unresponsive or cancelled inspection appointments’ leading up to the closure in January 2024.

“The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been attempting to coordinate with the West Virginia State Wildlife Center to renew its exhibitors’ license since September 2023, including making clear to the facility that a perimeter fence is necessary at the site due to the increased number of animals, including bears and large cats, that are present,” R. Andre Bell, a media contact in the animal care division, told My Buckhannon in an emailed response to questions about the closure.

Ultimately, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Class C Exhibitor license for the wildlife center was canceled on January 2, 2024, according to information on the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service website.

“Our state wildlife center in French Creek is temporarily closed due to an abrupt decision by the USDA to no longer recognize an indefinite variance for a secondary containment fence that was issued 24 years ago,” West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said in a briefing Wednesday.

According to Bell, the USDA has attempted to work with the WVDNR for months to bring the wildlife center into compliance so that it could remain open.

“Despite the Governor’s claims that APHIS made an abrupt decision, the center has had several months to come into compliance with Animal Welfare Act regulations intended to protect both animals and the public,” Bell said. “The center multiple times has been unresponsive or has cancelled inspection appointments. APHIS takes very seriously our responsibility to protect people and animals, as directed under the Animal Welfare Act, and we cannot grant the West Virginia State Wildlife Center a renewed license until these requirements are met.”

The closure was thrust into the spotlight this week after Justice said the popular Groundhog Day celebration at the wildlife center would be cancelled this year. But the next day, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin said he had worked out an agreement with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to allow the wildlife center to hold the annual Groundhog Day event on Friday.

“After speaking with USDA Secretary Vilsack yesterday, I have been assured that French Creek Freddie will have the opportunity to look for his shadow tomorrow morning,” Manchin said Thursday. “Secretary Vilsack and I have remained friends since our time as governors and while we continue to work to fully re-open the WV Wildlife Center, I am excited to see that the festivities will proceed tomorrow and hope French Creek Freddie will not see his shadow, forecasting an early spring!”

Bell confirmed that the USDA is working with the West Virginia State Wildlife Center for the event.

“We understand that longstanding community celebrations are cherished, important events and we would like for West Virginians to be able to attend the annual Groundhog Day ceremony,” he said. “We are currently working with the West Virginia State Wildlife Center to find a path forward so that French Creek Freddie can be a part of the event, if we can be assured the rest of the facility and animals will be safely closed to visitors.”

According to the WVDNR, the closure is only temporary, and Bell said the USDA also looks forward to resolving the licensure issues so the wildlife center, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last fall, can fully reopen to the public.

“APHIS has been attempting to work with the state for several months to avoid a circumstance like this, and we hope to have a productive outcome so the center can continue to operate and educate the public for many years to come,” he said.

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