Wilmington refuge surrenders licenses amid allegations
By Gwendolyn Craig
Adirondack Wildlife Refuge is finding new homes for the majority of its animals after the operator surrendered two of her remaining wildlife licenses the state planned to revoke after years of alleged deceptive and improper reporting about the Wilmington facility.
Records obtained by Adirondack Explorer through an information request show the Department of Environmental Conservation has run out of patience with the operation. The DEC tried since 2015 to bring operator Wendy Hall and the refuge into compliance after repeated violations, but to no avail.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied renewing Hall’s federal licenses in November 2019, also citing multiple violations. Aside from housing educational animals with those under rehabilitation intended for release, DEC records cite whistleblower reports of “discussions with staff to deceive regulators about illegal activity at AWR” and reporting “false statements.” DEC staff also highlighted three instances of escaped animals–one involving two bears in 2019, another involving a bobcat in 2020 and another in 2021 involving the same two bears.
Joseph Therrien, a wildlife biologist in charge of DEC’s special licenses unit, testified before DEC Administrative Law Judge Richard Sherman on July 13 that he believed the public’s safety was at risk given AWR’s history of animal escapes. Adirondack Explorer obtained the transcript of that hearing. Therrien has worked at the DEC for nearly two decades.
“Any of these animals that get out from their enclosure are going to be in a strange environment,” Therrien said. “If they run into the public, they’ll be around people they don’t know, they’ll be stressed, anxious, and could easily react in a way that could very much harm the public. So we would see this facility with the animals housed there as indeed a risk to the public health and safety in the area.”
Steve Hall, Wendy Hall’s husband and co-founder of the refuge, said Wednesday that his wife had made mistakes and acknowledged some of the violations. He called Wendy Hall’s surrender of her licenses “a dreadful mistake.” They are complying with the DEC’s order to find new homes for their animals, he said, though they hope it won’t come to that.
The Halls have partnered with a nonprofit called Nature Walks Conservation Society. Executive Director Mark Fraser said he’s finding the animals homes, but is also trying to get staff properly licenced at the Wilmington refuge. He hopes that the refuge might remain open and some of the animals, namely the wolves, could remain. Fraser lives in Massachusetts.
“My number one goal is to make sure every animal at the facility is safe, bar none,” Fraser said. “My longer-term goal, assuming every animal is saved, is the hope to rescue this important education gem for the northern Adirondacks.”
Two AWR staff members–Hanna Cromie and the Halls’ son Alex–have applied for the licenses Wendy lost. Steve Hall, who sometimes writes for the Explorer’s Adirondack Almanack, and Fraser said DEC isn’t granting them the licenses. Steve Hall and Fraser both believe Cromie and Alex Hall are qualified.
In an emailed statement, a DEC press officer said at least two individuals associated with AWR had applied for DEC licenses but the many violations at issue happened while those individuals were working there.
“This summer, DEC’s comprehensive review of license applications and those individuals’ roles in past violations at AWR resulted in denial of license applications to continue possessing DEC-regulated wildlife species at the facility,” the agency’s statement read.
Fraser said there are two others applying for licenses, but he has not yet heard whether the state has reviewed those applications. Meanwhile Wendy Hall, who Steve Hall said was diagnosed earlier this year with cancer of the pancreas and liver, read a statement for the refuge posted on YouTube on Wednesday.
“It is unfair of them (Cromie and Alex Hall) to be branded with this, and they should be allowed to apply for licenses,” Wendy Hall said.
In April 2021, the DEC wrote to Wendy Hall they planned to revoke her license to collect or possess state-regulated wildlife and her license for exhibiting endangered or threatened species. Steve Hall does not possess these DEC licenses, nor does anyone else working there.
“Currently,” a statement from the DEC read, “there is no pending action against Steve Hall.”
Wendy Hall requested a hearing and the DEC held one on July 13, but she didn’t show and neither did any other representative from AWR. Instead, before the hearing, Wendy Hall surrendered her licenses.
Her husband later said she was acting on the advice of an attorney, but the Halls later felt it was a mistake.
In his hearing testimony, Therrien said the DEC is not pursuing any fines against the refuge. When a DEC lawyer asked why not, Therrien said that had been tried already; the DEC even tried increasing the fees to bring AWR in compliance.
“That’s had no effect whatsoever whether the notices, the orders or the violations,” Therrien testified. “The main focus is, again, removing these licenses with revocation and removing these animals from the facility.”
In an agreement with the DEC, Wendy Hall and AWR staff have until Oct. 25 to relocate two wolves, two American black bears, two coyotes, a red fox, a gray fox, a fisher, a North American porcupine, a bobcat, and an Eastern box turtle. So far Pippin, the red fox, has been placed at Abbe-Freeland Animal Sanctuary in Allegany County.
The refuge has been closed to the public since this summer.
In an April 30 letter, DEC officials highlighted Wendy Hall’s years of noncompliance and repeated possession of wildlife without proper licenses. Steve Hall dismisses this as bureaucratic and complicated paperwork. The DEC called Wendy Hall’s violations “further evidence that you lack the requisite degree of care and trustworthiness to hold State wildlife licenses.” The letter lists 17 instances of noncompliance from January 2015 through June 2021.
The letter, signed by Anthony Wilkinson, director of the DEC’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, includes whistleblower reports from two former AWR volunteers. The report revealed that a bobcat named Yayo had escaped from the refuge.
“One volunteer overhead you and a staff member discuss whether to report the escape or to falsely report the bobcat as deceased to the DEC,” the letter read. “On July 27, 2020 you reported to the DEC that Yayo had died and had been buried at the facility. Falsely reporting the death of a bobcat in your possession instead of its escape is also a further violation,” of the license.
Steve Hall said the people DEC referred to “are witnesses that would never get past the door in a public court for very good reason.” One witness, he said, was a former employee who crashed a truck in Adirondack Wildlife Refuge’s driveway and refused to pay for any damages. The other was that employee’s girlfriend and also a refuge employee. He called them “two people who wanted to get revenge on us, and boy, did it work.”
Wilkinson also revisited in his letter the two black bears that had escaped AWR twice. The second time they escaped was at the end of June.
“Pictures and your description of the missing black bear on social media showed you nuzzling the bear, Stephen Hall hugging the bear, and a statement that the escaped bear is ‘completely harmless,’” Wilkinson wrote. “Additionally, you reported through social media that unlicensed members of the public assisted in the recapture of the escaped black bear and you publicized a photo of an unnamed person face-to-face with the bear in the wild.”
Wilkinson said these were further violations related to housing requirements for the animals so they cannot escape and safeguarding the public from attack, and prohibiting direct contact of an animal with the public.
Steve Hall said this was a DEC tactic to make the bears appear dangerous.
Fraser is picking up the pieces. His nonprofit, which he started in 2011, is taking on the fundraising role in lieu of Adirondack Wildlife, Inc. Adirondack Wildlife, Inc. is a nonprofit that the Halls founded in 2011 to keep fundraising tax-exempt from the private company, which is the AWR. But the Halls have split off from the Adirondack Wildlife board of directors.
“We had tremendous problems with them,” Steve Hall said. “They developed an attitude with Wendy and we ended up breaking up.”
John Thaxton, past president of the Adirondack Wildlife Inc. and writer of Adirondack Explorer’s bird column, said he did not know that the Adirondack Wildlife had split from AWR. He said the original arrangement was that all the money and donations that went through the wildlife refuge would then go through Adirondack Wildlife so it wouldn’t get taxed.
Thaxton was aware of some of Wendy Hall’s violations, but was not aware that the DEC had ordered the refuge’s animals placed elsewhere.
That’s where Fraser is stepping in, though with a full-time job and running his nonprofit from Massachusetts, he said it’s “brutally difficult.” He is hoping for “a miracle” from the state, some sort of pardon or reconsideration to allow current AMR staff to become licensed.
While he has identified homes for many of the animals, Fraser said he’s not revealing the proposed destination. He said he would disclose locations once the animals are at their new homes or if he obtains a license for the refuge.
Fraser would like to lease the refuge from the Halls and keep it running for the thousands of school children who visit each year, in addition to all the tourists that come. The Halls, too, recently took out a $140,000 loan to build a perimeter fence at the refuge before finding out that the DEC had planned to revoke Wendy Hall’s licenses. Steve Hall said even if all the animals end up getting new homes, he’ll keep the refuge open. He has plans to house goats, chickens and cattle and teach groups about the origins of livestock, something he thinks doesn’t get enough attention.
The Halls started rehabbing and caring for injured wildlife about two decades ago. Wendy Hall has also been a volunteer for North Country Wild Care, a wildlife hotline that pairs rehabilitation professionals with people with injured birds and animals. Fraser said he empathizes with the Halls and doesn’t want their life’s work to get destroyed.
So far, Fraser said, the state hasn’t responded to his business plans.
“The Adirondack Wildlife Refuge shouldn’t end this way,” Fraser said.