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In the Wild

West Virginia’s native wildlife are on display in some of Upshur County’s oldest forests at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center.

The forests of early 20th century West Virginia were quiet. A hunter could travel hundreds of miles and never hear the haunting bugle of an elk or the lonesome howl of a wolf. By 1911, many of the country’s game mammals were lost to habitat destruction and over-hunting. “The wildlife populations in this country were decimated,” says Gene Thorn, the wildlife biologist in charge of the West Virginia State Wildlife Center. “We only had a few hundred deer, turkey, and bear left in the state.”

As the rest of the country faced a similar fate, the West Virginia Game and Fish Commission took action to promote the re-population of wild animals across West Virginia. In 1923, the commission bought property in Upshur County, calling it the French Creek Game Farm, and began an intensive program to reintroduce native wildlife. Despite the farm’s focus on breeding and re-population, in 1926 alone, nearly 6,000 people came to observe the farm’s growing population of animals.

Although the program was deemed largely unsuccessful, by 1927, the game farm was attracting yearly crowds of 20,000 or more. Recognizing the importance of public awareness to conservation efforts, the farm, now called the West Virginia State Wildlife Center, shifted its focus to education. Beginning in 1984, financial support from the Land and Water Conservation Fund of the U.S. Department of the Interior prompted the construction of new exhibits and educational signage, and in 1986, the center reopened with its current name and focus. Nearly 50,000 people visit the center annually these days, including hundreds of school groups, 4-H clubs, and scout troops. “People just love observing animals,” says Gene, who oversees much of the center’s operation. “A lot of these animals you just aren’t going to see in the wild. Most are nocturnal and very secretive.”

From a game farm to a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art zoological park and educational facility, the center has come a long way. “We have everything from buffalo and elk, mountain lions, wolves, deer, and all the common small animals and birds of prey like bald eagles, golden eagles, and a myriad of owls,” Gene says. But don’t expect rows of cages or artificial habitats; the center prides itself on maintaining spacious, natural environments for every resident. “We have a 1.2-mile loop through an old growth forest, and all the enclosures are incorporated into that.”

The center boasts a group of highly talented staff comprised of local cattle farmers, summer interns from West Virginia University and nearby schools, a wildlife veterinarian, and wildlife biologist all dedicated to educating the public and providing excellent care for their charges. Employees grow and harvest their own hay, collect culled animals from fisheries and universities, and process deer and small animals killed along local roads for their predator populations. For Gene, this is part of the education. “That’s our primary role—to enlighten people on the reality of animals in the wild, predator prey relationships, and their relationship with the habitat.”

The center also serves as a home for many injured animals that would be unable to survive in the wild. “If something is injured or orphaned, it comes here.” With help from the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Morgantown, the USDA, and other organizations, staff keep and care for injured birds and animals from across the state and the U.S. while offering the public a chance to see some of the area’s most elusive creatures.

Guests are encouraged to pack a lunch, cook on the grill, and relax at the center’s picnic areas. Groups can rent the pavilion, while the gift shop offers food and souvenirs.

For Gene, an Upshur County native, the center is more than a tourist attraction; it’s a lifelong commitment. “Growing up, my dad always brought me to the game farm, and I just fell in love with the place. My first job with the Division of Natural Resources was here 30 years ago,” he says. Even after 28 years away, the memory of blue-green hills and old growth forests lured him back. “I have a history with this area. I’m invested here.”

The West Virginia State Wildlife Center is open year-round, seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A small admission fee is required April 1 through October 31.

West Virginia State Wildlife Center, County Route 20/10, French Creek, WV 26218; 304.924.6211; wvdnr.gov/wildlife/wildlifecenter.shtm

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