Busy year at Wolf Center

Summer attendance more than doubles; museum looks for $1.2 million in state bonding money to fund major renovation project

by Tom Coombe
Combine a more normal summer with the arrival of a new attraction and what do you get?
At the International Wolf Center, you get one hectic summer.
Officials from the popular wolf museum told Ely council members this week that attendance spiked this summer, a development that coincided with the arrival of Rieka, a brand-new wolf pup.
The Ely council also took action Tuesday, formally endorsing the IWC’s pitch for more than $1.2 million in state bonding funds to complete long-sought renovations at the facility just outside of town.
IWC Executive Director Grant Spickelmier and Interpretive Center Director Krista Harrington both addressed the council, on issues ranging from the renovation project and ramped-up education efforts to a summer that starred Rieka, who arrived in Ely June 10, less than a month after she was born.
New wolf pups generally bring increased attendance at the museum, but Harrington indicated that “our admission numbers went through the roof” this year.
From June through August, attendance topped 26,000 at the facility, compared to 12,000 in the same timeframe a year ago.
Rieka’s arrival paired with the easing of Covid-19 related restrictions were both factors.
“It was great so see the big push for people to get back out and see what we have,” said Harrington.
Rieka has, according to Harrington “grown from a little tiny peanut of a wolf to a roughly 70-pound six month old,” with about 12,000 people watching her develop while going through the center’s pup viewing experience.
‘This year to make it a little easier we had people go outside and she had a little enclosure set up outdoors,” said Harrrington.
The IWC wrestled with some of the same issues encountered by local businesses this year, including difficulties retaining staff.
Plans call for the museum to expand its internship program to a full year and to create as many as three new full-time positions in 2022, in part because of expanded educational programming.
Spickelmier said the center does educational outreach across the country and even beyond, including programs for schools in Vietnam and Mexico.
Now, the IWC is looking to expand its reach within the region, including programs with the Ely schools and others nearby.
“We haven’t done as much in our own backyards,” said Spickelmier. “We want to be more connected to Ely and we think expanded staffing will help with that.”
Spickelmier said the IWC is hosting a wolf symposium in 2022 in the Twin Cities, as it does every four years.
The event will attract more than 400 wolf biologists and managers, some of whom will come to Ely by bus to tour the facility.
It’s a facility long overdue for an upgrade, Spickelmier told the council.
“It’s 30 years old and it’s starting to feel like it’s 30 years old,” said Spickelmier.
That’s prompted the request for state bonding for a building that’s owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. One of the major components of the project is an overhaul of the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, to the tune of about $475,000.
Another big-ticket item is a $400,000 plan to replace the museum’s roof.
Snow melt has resulted in flooding at the center, and Spickelmier said “we’ve caulked it up as best as we could do but we need some water management.”
Better drainage, replacing the museum’s front door and improving the entrance/lobby area and making it handicap accessible are all part of the initiative.
Some exterior improvements are also planned.
State funds are needed to make the project happen, Stickelmier said, given a lack of capacity by the DNR to fund such a major overhaul.
State legislators who visited the area during the fall, as part of House and Senate bonding committee regional tours, got a firsthand look at the project.
The IWC is also working with State Rep. Rob Ecklund and State Sen. Tom Bakk to promote the request and Ely officials noted their support, despite the city’s own request for state bonding for the next phase of the city’s trailhead project.
Mayor Roger Skraba said during a previous term he once was caught by surprise, while in St. Paul on city business, by a Wolf Center request for state funding. He hailed IWC officials for bringing the current request to the attention of the city.
“I appreciate you coming here and giving us this information,” said Skraba.