Bear escapes, botched permits, and a buried eagle doomed the ADK Wildlife Refuge. Does it have a future?

The Adirondack Wildlife Refuge in Wilmington has been closed to visitors for months. (Emily Russell/North Country Public Radio)

The Adirondack Wildlife Refuge is on a wooded plot of land in Wilmington, NY surrounded by a tall chain-link fence. The fence is so new it still has tags on it.

Steve Hall fumbles with his keys to open the gate in the perimeter fence. Hall and his wife Wendy have owned the wildlife refuge for decades.

“This cost us $140,000 to do,” Hall says of the new fence.

It was installed earlier this year after New York State adopted new safety regulations. We walk through the gate and Hall points to a big green cage built for a bobcat, which is also new.

“As you can see it’s beautiful,” says Steve. “It’s ergonomic, it’s built for the animal, it would have been a great place for him to live, but he’s gone.”

Wendy and Steve Hall have owned the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge in Wilmington for decades. (Emily Russell/North Country Public Radio)

Walking up the path surrounded by tall pine trees, Steve points to other cages around us. “Three more brand new enclosures, all the animals gone.”

The animals have all been rehomed to wildlife sanctuaries around the country. The new enclosures and perimeter fence ended up being too little, too late.

The DEC declined NCPR’s request for an interview but said in a statement that the Halls made the upgrades about a year after the regulations were put in place and after the Halls were told their permits were being revoked.

Violations over the years

One of the empty animal enclosures at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge. (Emily Russell/North Country Public Radio)

Records from the DEC show violations at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge dating back to 2006.

Animals were taken from the wild and put on display. Wolves and bears escaped. Bears and birds didn’t have the right licenses or tagging. The facility’s logbooks were incomplete. Housing for the animals didn’t meet safety standards.

All the animal permits were registered with Steve’s wife, Wendy Hall. “It is a bureaucracy,” says Wendy, “I recognize that and I did not do a good job. It was never my intent to hurt anything.”

Wendy says she was just doing what she thought was right for the animals. Additional records obtained by the Adirondack Explorer show a number of violations involving bald eagles, which are a federally protected species.

Wendy remembers one of those incidents when someone brought an injured eagle to the refuge. “The whole wing was torn out and it was suffering and it was unbalanced,” she says.

Anyone who comes into possession of a bald eagle, whether it’s dead or alive, is required to report it to authorities within 24 hours.

Wendy didn’t do that. Instead, she had her vet euthanize the bird.

“He said, ‘Do you want me to bury it with a tractor?'” Wendy remembers, “And without thinking that this animal has got to be reported, I knee-jerk reacted and at that point they buried it and I got in huge trouble. So that’s a major violation.”

What would the DEC do?

Wendy owns these violations now, she says she didn’t follow the rules. Her husband Steve thinks the authorities overreacted.

“First of all, bald eagles are not even remotely in danger. There are as many bald eagles in America today as there were when the pilgrims got here,” says Steve.

“Second of all, how egregious is this as a violation? What would the DEC do? It’s not like they’re going to come down and rehab it.”

The DEC said in a statement that, if notified, it would have sent the eagle to “an adequate, properly licensed wildlife rehabilitator for further evaluation.”

“This is another clear example of how the Halls’ operating actions demonstrate their disregard of state and federal laws and regulations that are in place to prevent the exploitation of wildlife and protect public and animal safety,” the DEC said in a statement.

Zach Ladin from the US Fish and Wildlife Service says state and federal wildlife regulations are in place to ensure animals get the best care possible. Plus, Ladin says, those regulations are updated all the time with the latest data.

“We work with the latest scientific researchers, experts in animal welfare and care, and these standards are there for the well-being of the animals and rehabbers know that.”

The 2019 and 2021 bear escapes

Wildlife sanctuaries not only provide a place for animals to be rehabbed, but they’re also an important educational tool. For years, students and other visitors have come to the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and to learn about bears, ravens, and bobcats and other wild animals.

The refuge has nearly 5 stars from more than 1,000 reviews on Google and Facebook. But it’s empty now. There are no more wild animals and no more visitors. Steve says he does regret their violations.

“Oh I regret that, but I had nothing to do with any of that,” Steve says. “Oh, we did lie to the DEC once over the first bear escape.”

Two black bears escaped from the refuge in 2019. Steve said he lied and had his staff make it look like the bears bent a sapling over to escape from their enclosure. The two bears escaped again earlier this year.

“Are we angels? No,” says Steve, “but they act like [Wendy] is sitting there conniving and it’s ludicrous. If you get to know my wife, you know that’s not what she does.”

What’s next for the refuge?

For years, what Wendy did here was work with the animals, feeding and rehabbing them. Today, she’s sitting in an Adirondack chair behind her house at the refuge. Wendy found out earlier this year she has cancer. She says now she’s trying to focus on the next chapter of this place.

“I want to make sure, as much as I can, that this place continues without me, which it absolutely can,” says Wendy. “Everything I think about is the refuge.”

Wendy and Steve hope a new team of animal rehabbers can come in and lease their property. The DEC confirmed it is reviewing permit applications, but wouldn’t provide any additional details.

The future of this place is clouded by a messy reality. Steve and Wendy Hall have a deep passion for wildlife. They own a facility built for wild animals and for visitors.

But for years, they violated state and federal regulations and, ultimately, it’s up to those regulators whether the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge has a future under new leadership.


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