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French Creek Freddie has some thoughts on the rollercoaster ride of emotions he experienced over the past few days regarding whether his much-anticipated weather prediction would occur. (Photo by Monica Zalaznik)

Freddie fervor: State DNR director optimistic W.Va. Wildlife Center will reopen permanently after Feb. 2 celebration

FRENCH CREEK – A chilly, cloudy day Friday resulted in some sunny news: French Creek’s resident groundhog was not able to see his shadow when he emerged, thereby predicting an early spring.

French Creek Freddie emerged on the morning of Groundhog Day to a large crowd at the West Virginia Wildlife Center looking to see how much longer winter would last after the event was nearly canceled earlier in the week.

A packed house of families and kids — some showing off their Freddie fan signs — eagerly await the famous woodchuck’s weather prediction. (Photo by Monica Zalaznik)

West Virginia Director of Natural Resources Brett McMillion thanked the crowd, West Virginia Wildlife Center staff and Governor Jim Justice for supporting the center and promoting its annual Groundhog Day celebration.

Justice was unable to attend the event in person; however, he addressed the crowd via a large speaker to show his support for the event and the center.

“I celebrate the French Creek Wildlife Center; I’ve been there several times, especially when I was just a little kid, which seems like 5 million years ago, but nevertheless, what an incredible place and what incredible work we do there,” Justice said. “Have a great day, celebrate this incredible, incredible holiday and this big, wonderful time in West Virginia and God bless each one of you.”

“We’re going to keep working hard for you because we want the French Creek center open all the time,” the governor added.

West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, who attended in person, said he was impressed by how many people showed up for the celebration, given the short notice.

“I’ve been here many times — when I was a kid, we would come here all the time,” Warner said. “This facility is a wonderful place to see wildlife, to learn about wildlife, and to see this kind of turnout when it was supposed to have been canceled just 24 hours earlier speaks volumes about what people think of this facility.”

“It’s wonderful, and we need to keep it open for perpetuity, so I hope we resolve this thing very quickly and get the facility open,” Warner added. “It’s too much of a gem to have it closed.”

Upshur County Commissioner Kristie Tenney said she was thrilled to see French Creek Freddie’s prediction of an early spring.

“I’m super excited about spring coming, so that was wonderful, and with all the excitement, I wanted to support our wildlife center because we all just love the Wildlife Center,” Tenney said. “I love bringing my grandchildren up here in the spring, and we love to go through even a couple of times a year, so I wanted to come and support them — it’s very important to the area.”

McMillion said he and others at the DNR appreciated the support they saw online after the closure of the center and cancellation of the event was announced.

“A lot of folks may were like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ when they saw the discourse online, but I was actually encouraged because I realized the number of supporters that were involved in this and showed their concern,” McMillion said. “We were very excited to see the crowd today, especially with our short notice and all the drama that we had gone through to get to this point, so it was very encouraging to see the support for this facility – it was just phenomenal and today was a prime example of that.”

The center was allowed to open for the Feb. 2 celebration after being granted a one-day clearance from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“There was some miscommunication and some challenges that we faced in getting our inspection completed based on a variance that, as the governor stated, we’ve had for 24-plus years, but I think we’re going to be able to work through it,” McMillion said. “I feel very confident this was a great step from the USDA to give us the opportunity to be here today, so I feel think they understand the importance of the area, and I think at the end of the day we’ll see the Wildlife Center open again very soon on a permanent basis.”

McMillion said there is no timeline for reopening right now, but they want to have a schedule ready soon.

“We’d like to see it resolved today; we do have to get our variance approved and then get the inspection which should be routine after that point,” McMillion said. “I would certainly hope within the next couple of weeks we can realize a fall and open schedule.”

Wildlife Biologist Trevor Moore also offered the crowd some interesting facts about the critter of the hour and said this was Freddie’s 47th Groundhog Day Celebration at the Wildlife Center.

“Groundhogs are big burrowers, they’re big rodents, so they can move 700 pounds of dirt, usually in a couple of months. If any of you are farmers and you have big groundhog dens in your farms, I’m sure you know about them because lots of people do not like them,” Moore said. “Groundhogs typically hibernate as you guys probably know – that’s why we’re here at Groundhog Day because they come out of hibernation. It’s usually just the boys that come out because they are looking for some girl groundhogs to start a family.”

He said groundhogs are solitary creatures and birth about four to seven pups at a time.

“The mom groundhog kicks you out in two months, so they’re ready to move on; groundhogs are usually solitary, so that’s why mom is kicking them out,” Moore said. “Not only can they build really good burrows, but they can actually climb and they can swim.”

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