International Wolf Center: a million visitors and counting

by Tom Coombe -

Mar. 25 was no typical Saturday at the International Wolf Center.
That evening, during the museum’s weekly “What’s For Dinner?” program, the center welcomed its one-millionth visitor.
There were no bells and whistles to mark the milestone at the time, but IWC officials have been celebrating, and making note of it, ever since.
“We’ve been incredibly excited for this day,” said Rob Schultz, executive director. “For the past several weeks our staff have been anxiously watching the attendance records as we anticipate our one-millionth visitor.”
The milestone will be celebrated formally on Saturday, Apr. 22, when the Center will hold a special Earth Day celebration, with half-price admission, refreshments, family activities and special programs from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Since opening its doors in July, 1993, the IWC has been welcoming visitors to its museum located just outside of Ely on the community’s eastern edge.
After reporting large attendance numbers in the opening years of operation, inerest began to wane in the late-1990s.
A period of slow and steady decline began, but more recent efforts to enhance promotion and offer new exhibits each year had had a positive impact on the turnstiles.
IWC officials reported “skyrocketing” attendance in 2016, including a 27 percent jump to 44,381 guests . It was the largest attendance year at the facility since 2004 and came during a year two new wolf pups - Axel and Grayson - joined the museum’s ambassador pack.
“It hasn’t been easy to turn things around,” said Schultz. “While pup years bring more guests through the door, we’ve had to find other new ways to promote ourselves, to draw excitement for our programs and ambassador wolves, and to expand the kinds of special exhibits to attract new audiences.”
Grant funding from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) helped promote a collaboration with local northern lights photographer Heidi Pinkerton, which resulted in increased attendance. This upcoming summer, the Center’s advertising campaign will feature Axel and Grayson, two arctic wolves who have grown significantly over the winter months after arriving.
Billboards in prominent places including Interstate-35 have been part of an effort to lure more visitors to the IWC, which has been in operation since 1993.
A new policy that allows visitors to use their paid admission to return the following day has also helped, and provided an ancillary benefit for the Ely area.
Challenges on the horizon include a quest to obtain $1.2 million in state bonding to update the center’s signature Wolves and Humans exhibit.
Center officials have also maintained a facelift is needed to build attendance and provide another reason for people to return.