Montana officials are holding up shipments of tens of thousands of trout eggs from a federal fish hatchery to other states as Gov. Brian Schweitzer seeks to pressure the Interior Department into changing the way it manages other wildlife — particularly bison.
The clash between the governor and Interior comes as the Ennis National Fish Hatchery near Bozeman is entering one of its busy seasons, with 5.7 million eggs slated for shipment in the next eight weeks. Officials said most of those eggs were intended to go out of state.
So far, two trout egg shipments scheduled this week from Ennis to state hatcheries in Utah and New Hampshire have been delayed, state and federal officials said Thursday. Those totaled more than 140,000 eggs.
Schweitzer signed an order last week prohibiting any fish or wildlife shipments by the Interior Department without state approval.
That came after Interior officials in recent months repeatedly rebuffed the Democrat's proposal to allow bison hunting in parts of Yellowstone National Park to help control an animal disease, brucellosis. The federal agency also has resisted Schweitzer's idea to relocate some disease-free bison to the National Bison Range.
The trout eggs were to be hatched in the receiving states and then used to stock local waterways with young fish. Officials said the eggs will have to be destroyed if they're not shipped by Jan. 2.
No decision has been made on three shipments scheduled for next week to North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska totaling 275,000 eggs, said Ron Aasheim with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Three egg shipments from Ennis hatchery to points in Montana have been approved — 215,000 eggs for the Bluewater State Fish Hatchery near Bridger, 550,000 eggs for the Creston National Fish Hatchery near Kalispell and 95,000 eggs for Murray Springs State Hatchery near Eureka.
Beyond whether the shipments are in-state or out-of-state, it was unclear what criteria the state was using to decide which shipments of eggs are acceptable.
Schweitzer said in Thursday interview that the first step toward approval of the out-of-state shipments would be for Interior to provide a list of all wildlife shipments from the National Bison Range and any culling of animals there in the past 30 years.
The governor said his grievances with Interior go beyond bison. There have been at least two shipments of fish into Montana by the agency without a permit, he said, and other instances where wildlife was transported without any notification to Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
"How can we manage wildlife in Montana if we have a federal agency that moves species around with reckless disregard?" Schweitzer said in a Thursday interview. "Their own rules tell them they're supposed to cooperate and collaborate before shipping wildlife."
He added that there was no immediate chance of harm to the trout eggs from the delayed shipments because they can be kept in refrigeration temporarily, a claim confirmed by federal officials. However, by the first week of January the eggs will begin to hatch, making them impossible to transport, officials said.
Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher on Thursday declined to answer questions about the hatchery delays, but said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was committed to "maintaining open and effective lines of communication with the governor."
"We will continue to work closely with the state to best meet the needs of everyone, including Montana's fishing interests, in a way that is inclusive, collaborative, and reflects the strong overall relationship the Department of the Interior shares with the state," Fetcher said in an emailed statement.
Schweitzer, in his bid to get concessions from federal officials on bison, has taken approaches varying from combative — he has repeatedly referred to some federal bison with cattle genes as "mongrels" — to conciliatory.
Last week, the governor blasted Salazar when the secretary said out-of-state relocations were under consideration for a group of bison that came from the park but are now under state control. Schweitzer rejected the idea and said the animals were the property of the state.
Days later, he wrote to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that he liked the agency's suggestions for relocating bison "to a federal facility of (Interior's) choice."
"I appreciate your commitment to coming up with good solutions, and being willing to act quickly," Schweitzer wrote in the Dec. 16 letter.
That came just three days after the governor blasted Salazar when the secretary said out-of-state relocations were under consideration for a group of bison that were captured after leaving the park but are now under state control, at a quarantine compound outside the park. Schweitzer rejected Salazar's idea and said the animals were the property of the state.
"That time it was my buffalo, not theirs," he said Thursday.