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French Creek Freddie emerges to make his 2023 prediction under cloudy skies. / Photo by Beckie Boyd

Popular Groundhog Day celebration at West Virginia Wildlife Center canceled

Thursday morning update: The Groundhog Day celebration at the wildlife center is back on according to Sen. Joe Manchin. Our original story follows.

BUCKHANNON — On Wednesday, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced the cancellation of this year’s Groundhog Day celebration, a beloved annual event that draws travelers from several states to Upshur County to witness famed weather prognosticator French Creek Freddie emerge from his den and forecast an early spring or six more weeks of winter.

This year would have marked the 47th annual Groundhog Day celebration at the wildlife center. According to legend, if the marmot sees his shadow, that signifies six more weeks of winter, and if not, spring is on the way. Last year, Freddie predicted an early spring.

The cancellation follows a shutdown at the wildlife facility that has lasted more than a month.

On December 28, 2023, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Director Brett McMillion announced the Wildlife Center would be closing for six days for an ‘annual inspection.’

“We thank you for your patience and continued support of the Wildlife Center, and we look forward to experiencing the new year with you all,” McMillion said at the time.

The center was scheduled to reopen on January 5, 2024. However, nearly a month later, it remains closed, with no confirmed date as to when the center might reopen.

My Buckhannon reached out to the center on Monday to inquire about the Groundhog Day celebration, and the center could not comment on the status of the event or even confirm on the record whether it would, or would not, be held this year. Official information was promised to be forthcoming.

But word of the event’s cancellation leaked on social media, causing rampant speculation as to the cause, with some wondering if Freddie was sick or if the state was working with PETA.

Justice, however, said the shutdown has to do with a containment fence.

“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,” Justice said.

The governor did not offer any specifics about why the USDA had rejected the variance or what the state has done over the past month to rectify the issue. He claimed the cancellation of Freddie’s big day was because the federal government was seeking to ‘punish’ states.

“This is a move by folks that are trying to basically punish states,” Justice said. “You see what’s going on with President Trump. I mean, for God’s sakes a living, you see what’s going on with me.”

In response to a question about what the next steps were for the state, Justice said he didn’t know “all the avenues that we have available to us at this time.”

“The first thing we will do, in my opinion, is contact our senators,” Justice said.

The governor did not offer any timeline as to when the Wildlife Center might reopen to the public.

The West Virginia Wildlife Center, one of Upshur County’s most popular attractions, celebrated its 100th anniversary last fall.

“The State Wildlife Center has been an incredible educational resource for the past century and I’m excited to see even more West Virginia residents and visitors learn about our state’s abundant wildlife species and their importance to our heritage and ecosystem,” Justice said in September. “I want to encourage folks to visit this remarkable place and help us celebrate 100 years of the West Virginia State Wildlife Center.”

The center was founded in 1923 as the French Creek Game Farm. Today, the modern zoological facility is home to dozens of West Virginia species, from black bears to bobcats, in large enclosures along a 1.25-mile forest trail.

The normal winter season runs from November 1 to March 31, with the hours of 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and free admission. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer season, from April 1 to October 31, and admission during that period is $4 for adults 16 and older, $2 for children ages 6-15, and free for kids 5 and younger. Contact the West Virginia State Wildlife Center by calling 304-924-6211 between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Read more about the USDA’s revocation of the DNR’s license in My Buckhannon’s follow-up story, or read the USDA’s response to the closure by clicking here.

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