Buckhannon Rotary discusses Wildlife Center

The Buckhannon Rotary Club heard about the vision Gene Thorn, a wildlife biologist at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center in French Creek, has for the future of the facility.

Thorn has worked as a wildlife biologist for 29 years with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources in the wildlife resources section. He is currently the wildlife biologist in charge of the WVSWC.

“I have a bigger broader vision for the Wildlife Center than what’s been there in the past,” Thorn said, adding that his No. 1 goal is to establish a visitor’s center at the facility.

Thorn said the visitors center he envisions would have aquariums, wildlife museums and a movie theater that could show the history of the Wildlife Center and to teach about the different wildlife there. The gift shop could move to the proposed visitors center as well.

Thorn said a visitor’s center could cost up to $5 million.

“It’s major money,” Thorn said. “These (visitor centers) are a central part to any area that people go to. They learn about it, and then go out in the area and experience it.”

Thorn also said he would like to add another porcupine exhibit and build another picnic and pavilion area. He said porcupines have been crossing the border from Pennsylvania to West Virginia and are now native to the state. He added that elk have been crossing into the state from Kentucky.

Thorn said that he thinks the Wildlife Center will need to re-establish a foundation to accomplish those goals.

“I think there’s so many people in this area that are invested in the Wildlife Center,” Thorn said. “We have to work on a strategy of how to get that done outside of state budget limitations.”

The budget for the Wildlife Center has remained largely unchanged while costs continue to rise. Thorn said that repairs and additions to the Wildlife Center have to be made individually as funds permit. He told the Rotarians that the Wildlife Center once had a foundation of organizations and businesses that were dedicated to the future of the state’s zoological facility, but the foundation no longer exists.

Thorn hopes to establish that foundation again. He said anyone interested in participating in a foundation can contact the WVSWC at 304-924-5370.

The foundation would help to support the Wildlife Center’s growth. Thorn said that animal food has nearly quadrupled in cost since 1986, and that he has fed some of the animals with road-kill deer. He said the center processes about 400 of those annually. It helps to curb the growing expense of food and to clean the streets.

“But that still adds to its cost because we run around all over Upshur County picking those up,” Thorn said. “All these costs have basically egged the budget up to the point where we really can’t build extra things.”

Thorn also updated Rotarians about the damage to the Wildlife Center from Superstorm Sandy. He said a fence company was notified Tuesday that it could proceed with the repairs. Thorn said staff has been cleaning debris from pens for about 89 days now.

“Almost all of our pens were damaged in some way,” Thorn said, adding that no mammals were lost or injured, although an extensive number of birds escaped.

A golden eagle was among the birds lost. Thorn said it would take a good deal of effort to replace all the birds that were lost. Some of the birds already had wing injuries and could not have flown away. All birds that come into the Wildlife Center are rehabilitation birds from the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center or the Three Rivers Avian Center.

“We never really know where we’re going to have to go to get the next one,” Thorn said.

Although the species of birds at the Wildlife Center are native to West Virginia, the birds that come into the Wildlife Center could be from around the nation.

The only animal that cannot be found in the state, but has lived at the Wildlife Center was Gus the Lion. Gus came to the Wildlife Center as a cub from the Smithsonian after a contribution of other animals native to West Virginia were previously given to them from the WVSWC.

About 260 animals currently reside at the Wildife Center, accounting for more than 30 species.