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A crisp look at wildlife center's star attractions

Kenny Kemp
A fisher in a luxuriant winter coat enjoys a winter romp that left some snow on its nose.
FRENCH CREEK, W.Va. --While the weather outside may seem frightful for some human visitors, snow and ice are just part of another day in the life for the animals at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center."A lot of the animals that sleep or lay around during the heat of day in the summer are more active in winter," said Gene Thorn, superintendent of the Division of Natural Resources' West Virginia State Wildlife Center at French Creek. Animals who fall into that category include the Wildlife Center's mountain lions, gray wolves, red foxes, bobcats and fishers, whose coats become denser and longer, and often take on subtle color changes, during winter.The Wildlife Center's black bears "don't do a true hibernation," Thorn said, and can often be found out and about in their enclosure throughout the winter. "Their food intake goes down, but they spend a lot of time outside, especially if we catch a warm day."On a recent frigid weekday, a pair of teenaged black bears could be seen strolling the perimeter of their wooded enclosure, pausing occasionally to lap up mouthfuls of fresh snow.Animals not likely to be seen by winter visitors to the Wildlife Center include such hibernating or seasonally inactive species as raccoons, opossums, skunks and groundhogs. Since the river otters' aquatic enclosure is drained during the winter, the otters spend their time in an artificial den and are seldom seen."For some of the animals, their systems partially shut down during the winter, and they use a lot less food," Thorn said. "Food intake for birds of prey, like the bald eagle, decreases by about three-fourths, starting in December. In the wild, it's harder for eagles to get fish at this time of year, and their food intake goes down, like it does for the eagles in captivity."The Wildlife Center gets its fish from state trout hatcheries. "For some reason, the bald eagles here and at the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center prefer rainbow trout, and don't like golden trout," Thorn said.Animals that are more active in winter eat more food during the cold season to meet their special metabolic needs.Elk and bison that graze on adjacent acreages of pasture during the warmer months are fed hay and grain-based feeds mixed to a veterinarian's specifications. The enclosed elk pasture borders W.Va. 20, giving drivers traveling between Buckhannon and Rock Cave the chance to see the center's 7-year-old bull elk, with his huge antlers, from the road.
While most visitors tour the Wildlife Center in warmer months, it remains open year-round, with winter visitors getting a bonus -- no admission fee from Nov. 1 through March 31."We don't clear the walks, so you have to beware of icy conditions," said Thorn, "but we're open every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m."If the gate leading to the Wildlife Center's main gate is closed due to excess snow in the parking lot, visitors may park in the adjacent parking lot serving the DNR's District 3 office and walk to the wildlife exhibits.A 1.25-mile walkway takes visitors past the Wildlife Center's animal enclosures, located in, and usually incorporating, a stand of mature hardwood forest."We get a few visitors in the winter, including a few fitness diehards who really like to walk," said Thorn. "It's an interesting time to see the animals."Interpretive signs outside each enclosure give visitors basic information on the animals contained within. The Wildlife Center is a zoological park containing 30 species of animals, all of which are, or were at one time, native to West Virginia.
Feb. 2 is the biggest winter day for visitors at the Wildlife Center, due to the annual appearance of groundhog French Creek Freddie and a ceremony in which the interpretation of his prediction on the arrival of spring-like weather is announced.Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169. 
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