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West Virginia State Wildlife Center

The West Virginia State Wildlife Center, south of Buckhannon, is a 338-acre zoological facility operated by the Division of Natural Resources. It was previously known as the French Creek Game Farm.

In 1923, the Game and Fish Commission purchased property in Upshur County and created the game farm to aid in the reestablishment of wildlife populations in the state. Species such as quail, pheasant, turkey, and deer were raised there, but the breeding programs were discontinued as farm-raised animals often failed to survive in the wild.

The facility began evolving as a zoo in 1954, when two bison and two elk, species once native to the state, were imported from Oklahoma and kept in outdoor enclosures. Other animals representing native and once-resident wildlife were kept in cages until 1986, when roomier pens making use of natural features were installed on a wooded hillside. The facility was renamed the West Virginia State Wildlife Center.

More than 20 species of animals are present at French Creek at any one time. A glass-walled snake den houses timber rattlers, black snakes, and other native serpents. Otters occupy a man-made waterfall, stream bank, and pool complex built in the 1990s. Other animals include black bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, deer, elk, and bison. Birds of prey include eagles and owls. A pond equipped with an observation deck provides a home for trout, bluegill, catfish, and bass. Every Groundhog Day, visitors gather to observe whether French Creek Freddie will emerge to see his shadow.

The West Virginia Wildlife Center draws about 50,000 annual visitors, who see the animals while walking along a 1.25-mile trail leading past the enclosures. The facility is open year-round.

A rather bizarre, and surprisingly political, event occurred before the February 2024 Groundhog Day event. The previous September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had alerted the Wildlife Center that it must install an additional perimeter fence to renew its permit. The center had operated since 2000 without the perimeter fence under a federal variance, or exception. On February 1, 2024, Governor Jim Justice announced that the USDA had temporarily closed the center until the fence could be built. Justice, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2024, called the decision “abrupt.” Later that day, Senator Joe Manchin announced that through his intervention, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack had granted the center a one-day exemption to open for its annual Groundhog Day celebration. On February 2, a larger-than-usual crowd—more than 400—turned out for the festivities. Governor Justice gave a remote speech to attendees in which he blamed the shutdown on “overreach of the federal government” and received enthusiastic applause from the audience.