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

USDA revokes license of West Virginia Wildlife Center, leading to indefinite closure

BUCKHANNON – In March 2020, two gray wolves at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center in French Creek escaped through a small hole in their enclosure and fled from the facility. For hours, the animals wandered southern Upshur County, until they “reached a populated area, posing a risk to people, pets and livestock.”

Unable to be captured, both wolves were killed.

Now, the lack of a perimeter fence that could prevent incidents like that from occurring again has led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to revoke the state’s exhibitor license for the wildlife center. During a briefing Wednesday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice confirmed that the lack of a secondary containment fence is the reason for the center’s indefinite closure and the cancellation of French Creek Freddie’s popular Groundhog Day celebration.

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

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the federal agency responsible for overseeing animal safety and enclosures for zoological facilities across the country. The Animal Welfare Inspection Guide specifies the guidelines for perimeter fencing.

“Dangerous animals, such as large felids (e.g., lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, ligers, and jaguars), bears, wolves, rhinoceros, elephants and polar bears require a perimeter fence that is not less than 8 feet high, and is 3 feet or more in distance from any enclosure housing animals,” according to the guide.

The West Virginia Wildlife Center is home to several species that fall under the ‘dangerous animals’ category, including black bears, wolves and mountain lions. The animals are kept in fenced-in enclosures designed to mimic their natural habitats. However, the facility as a whole is not surrounded by a second perimeter fence.

According to Justice, the USDA had issued the wildlife center an exemption for the perimeter fencing requirement since 2000, but the agency decided against extending that variance again this year in an “abrupt decision as part of the annual relicensing procedure.”

While rare, animals – including dangerous animals – have escaped the facility in the past, as the wolves did in 2020.

“The two wolves had reached a populated area, posing a risk to people, pets and livestock,” Lawrence Messina, who was then a spokesperson for the DNR, told My Buckhannon at the time. “One was encountered just before nightfall, prompting the decision to act quickly and decisively to eliminate the hazard to that community. The other was pursued for several hours after sunset but eluded recapture, again prompting the decision to keep it from bringing any harm to the community nearby.”

After the incident, the DNR “completed safety inspections and fortifications of all enclosures at the wildlife center to ensure the safety of the animals and the public,” according to a statement from Andy Malinoski, a spokesperson for the DNR.

Four years later, Malinoski was again fielding questions related to fencing at the wildlife center. On Wednesday, the spokesman told My Buckhannon in an email that the DNR does not have a timetable as to when the wildlife center might reopen to the public.

“We continue to explore options with the federal agency with the goal of reopening the facility as soon as possible,” Malinoski said. “There are no plans to permanently close the facility.”

Malinoski added that the DNR does not anticipate modifying staffing levels while the center is closed to the public.

When asked about the next steps and if the DNR would install a perimeter fence, apply for another variance, or some other option, he replied, “Negotiations are ongoing and we are exploring a variety of options.”

The USDA did not respond to a request for comment.

Thursday update: The Groundhog Day celebration at the wildlife center is back on according to Sen. Joe Manchin. The USDA has also responded to the closure. Read that story here.

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