The United States Department of Agriculture has temporarily closed the West Virginia Wildlife Center, in Upshur County, until it fixes a fencing issue. (West Virginia Department of Tourism and the West Virginia Department of Commerce photo)
BY: LORI KERSEY
A federal agency is pushing back against Gov. Jim Justice’s claim earlier this week that its “abrupt decision” to no longer recognize a longstanding variance at the West Virginia Wildlife Center — temporarily closing the Upshur County facility — was part of a politically motivated effort to “punish” the state.
West Virginia’s Groundhog Day tradition continued Friday morning at the Wildlife Center, one day after Justice announced that the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service had granted it a one-day clearance to open the center and hold the event.
During his Wednesday administrative briefing, Justice, who is running for U.S. Senate, said the federal government is trying to “punish” West Virginia, a state that “probably doesn’t align with the thinking of the Biden administration at all.” Justice said that the USDA’s “abrupt decision” not to recognize a variance for a secondary containment fence issued in 2000 as a part of its relicensing process led to the temporary closure.
“I’m calling on President Biden to stop this all out war on West Virginia by his federal agencies,” Gov. Justice said in a news release later that day. “It’s so blatantly targeted at our state and our people because we happen to disagree on political issues. It’s just plain wrong.
However a spokesperson for the United States Department of Agriculture said Thursday the federal agency has been trying since September 2023 to coordinate with the facility to renew its exhibitors’ license. The agency has made it clear a perimeter fence is necessary because of an increased number of animals, including bears and large cats, spokesman R. Andre Bell wrote.
“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 wrote. “The center multiple times has been unresponsive or has canceled 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,” he wrote.
Bell went on to write that the agency understands that long-standing traditions are cherished and that the agency had been attempting to work with the state to avoid the Groundhog Day ceremony being canceled.
“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.
Sen. Joe Manchin wrote in a statement Thursday that he had called USDA secretary Tom Vilsack and explained the importance of the Groundhog Day event, “saving” the holiday festivities. Justice’s office said in a release Thursday it had been given one-day clearance to hold the event.
The Wildlife Center’s temporary closure was one of two recent examples Justice gave of the federal government trying to “punish” West Virginia.
According to Justice’s office, the federal Fish and Wildlife Services also recently told the state Division of Natural Resources the state has to stop stocking trout in waters with a known population of candy darter, Guyandotte River crayfish and Big Sandy crayfish, resulting in the removal of a handful of streams from the trout stocking program.
State biologists don’t believe the animals, which are listed as threatened or endangered, are as affected by the trout as the federal agency thinks, Justice said.
In a response to a reporter’s request for comment, Keith Shannon, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Center, clarified that the agency did not order an end to the state’s trout stocking program but supported its continuation and expedited a review of this program to ensure it continues.
The state’s trout stocking program is funded partly by a federal grant and requires compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
“As part of the [Endangered Species Act] review, the WVDNR collaboratively developed conservation measures to ensure trout stocking did not adversely affect Federally listed species with the Service,” Shannon said.
Shannon wrote that the federal service received final grant documentation Jan. 23 and awarded it another three-year grant.
Neither Justice’s office nor the Division of Natural Resources responded to a request for comment on Friday.
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