W.Va. Wildlife Center and DNR trout stocking under federal scrutiny

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Governor Jim Justice is furious with a pair of federal agencies over their handling of two separate issues involving the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. Justice, during his Wednesday media briefing, was visibly upset with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

His consternation with Agriculture was over an issue which has effectively shut down the West Virginia Wildlife Center at French Creek.

“It’s temporarily closed due to an abrupt decision by the USDA to no longer recognize an indefinite variance for a secondary containment fence that was issued 24 years ago,” Justice explained.

A dispute with the USDA over a secondary containment fence a the W.Va. Wildlife Center will force cancellation of this year’s Groundhog Day activities in Upshur County. PHOTO: WV Dept. of Commerce

The Wildlife Center staff has been going through their annual inspection and recertification with the Animal Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) which is required for any facility which exhibits animals to the public. Since 2000, the federal agency had allowed for a perimeter fence around the entire French Creek facility to satisfy the requirement for secondary containment. According to Justice, the dispute over the fence will disallow the annual Groundhog Day celebration at the facility this week and the annual emergence of French Creek Freddie.

“We asked if we could at least take pictures of the groundhog on Groundhog Day, ‘Nope–can’t do it.” said a frustrated Justice during the briefing.

The Governor’s agitation with USDA was only tempered by his outright anger at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Fish and Wildlife shows up, and says–here’s exactly their words, ‘Your trout stocking program in West Virginia is over.'” said Justice.

The Governor told reporters Fish and Wildlife is threatening to withhold annual allocations of conservation funding the state receives for trout and other fishing operations if the stocking program is not drastically modified. The federal agency challenged some stocked trout are preying on endangered aquatic species in a number of Mountain State streams including the candy darter and some endangered crayfish.

“They show up and say, ‘If you continue your trout stocking program in West Virginia the way it is right now, your grant is completely denied.’ So it’s blackmail.” said Justice. “This is a move by folks who are trying to basically punish states. It’s purposeful and direct.”

The perimeter fence for the West Virginia Wildlife Center at French Creek has been accepted to satisfy the “secondary containment fence” requirement for the past 24 years, but that variance is now rejected according to the Governor. PHOTO: WVDNR

The DNR has previous modified fishing regulation in the state to specifically protect the candy darter.  The small, colorful fish has also drawn fire upon other federal agencies from public groups claiming not enough has been done to protect them.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service has previously granted variances to the state’s trout program over similar concerns with a couple of crayfish species.

Justice said DNR personnel disagree with the contention the stocked trout are a threat to the endangered species, but offered to partner with WVU to study the matter for a year. He said the proposal was rejected.

Officials with the Division of Natural Resources and its parent agency the West Virginia Department of Commerce are attempting to work with the two federal agencies to reach an amicable solution.

Justice expected they would call on the state’s Congressional delegation to see if they would be able to intervene.

“I don’t know of all the avenues that we have available, but we’re going to figure it out or at least we’re going to try awfully hard to figure it out,” he said.

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