FOREST LAKE, Minn. -- A feud between Minnesota wildlife officials and a nonprofit wildlife center appears to be poised to spill beyond the boundaries of the 7-acre Forest Lake installation that houses some 100 wolves, bears, wildcats and other animals.
On Tuesday, the Department of Natural Resources essentially sent a six-month eviction notice to the Wildlife Science Center, a nonprofit refuge and education center that leases state land inside Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area.
The DNR alleges the center has violated its long-standing lease on a number of different fronts, including breaking building codes, allowing someone to live on the premises, and using the center as a shelter for potentially dangerous dogs during the day.
The DNR hasn’t said the welfare of the animals is in jeopardy.
Peggy Callahan, an outspoken but generally well-regarded researcher and the center’s director, disputes nearly every allegation and took to social media to lash out at the DNR’s “attack” after receiving the DNR’s notice of lease termination Tuesday.
On Friday, Callahan said she’s taking her case to state lawmakers in hopes they’ll side with her and overrule the DNR.
“I’m going over their heads,” said the 53-year-old biologist, who first came to the site in 1985, when it was a federally funded facility. In 1991, Callahan founded WSC as a way to keep the mission going.
“The DNR has to answer to the Legislature, and all I’m asking the Legislature to do is tell the DNR to leave us alone until our lease expires in March of 2017.”
The center, which has an annual budget of about $300,000, had already begun trying to raise the estimated $500,000 needed to move the center to 165 acres it owns in Anoka County.
“This is too sudden,” she said of the DNR’s notice, which says that if the center can’t address the concerns, it and its animals must vacate before July 15.
Rick Telander, director of the agency’s wildlife division, said he respects the center’s work, which ranges from elementary school education programs to training some of the personnel who helped reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park.
“They do a lot of great public education work there, so we think their mission is a great one and we really support what they do,” Telander said Friday. “It’s just that we’re concerned about the safety of people there - both their own staff and the public. So we need to resolve those issues.”
The DNR’s file on the Wildlife Science Center includes inspection reports and photographs alleging several code violations, including potentially hazardous wiring in a heated storage building where the center houses its offices. As Telander describes it, WSC and the DNR could reach an accommodation.
“We do have a clause in the letter (stating) that if they work with us and bring the operation in compliance with the lease terms that we’d be willing to suspend the lease termination notice,” Telander said.
But on Friday, between sessions with a few vanloads of college students taking a course on wolves and wolf research techniques, Callahan disputed Telander’s suggestion.
“We need our offices in that building,” she said. “They say they’re giving us options, but they’re not practical.”
The DNR also alleges that Callahan has used the center as a daytime kennel for unadoptable dogs from a shelter, Home at Last Minnesota, which she runs out of her home. Callahan disputes that, maintaining the only dogs on the premises - and there are often dogs there - are her pets or the pets of her three staff members or volunteers.
Wildlife Science Center has hired an attorney, but Callahan wouldn’t say whether she might take her case to court.
The dispute is noteworthy because Callahan, while independent, has never been in a full-on feud with the DNR before - unlike the long-running bitterness between the agency and popular Ely bear researcher Lynn Rogers.
While she oversees the captive raising of orphaned wild animals at WSC and operates her dog shelter, Callahan does not fit the stereotype of an animal rights activist. A deer hunter herself, Callahan several years ago supported removing Minnesota wolves from the federal endangered species list, and she dismissed criticism of reopening hunting and trapping of wolves, a stance that continues to draw scorn from animal rights advocates who oppose wolf hunting.
On Friday, as she led a tour for the students from the Audubon Society of the North Woods along chain-link enclosures that house several species of wolves, mountain lions and black bears, she seemed to surprise some with her trademark approach that seeks to shatter images of the wolves as either ravenous beasts or cuddly puppies.
“Wild wolves aren’t dangerous,” she told the group. “Do you know how many deer hunters would be killed by wolves if they were? You know what wolves are dangerous? Bottle-fed wolves.”