HELENA — An executive order aimed at prohibiting federal officials from moving bison within Montana or across state lines might have a ripple effect on trout planting on lakes near Helena and elsewhere.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer issued the order last week, banning the Interior Department from moving fish and wildlife in or out of Montana. He blamed the federal agency for allowing the spread of animal diseases such as brucellosis and chronic wasting across the West.
But due to the order, the planned stocking this month of up to 150 trout — some weighing 25 to 30 pounds — from the Ennis National Fish Hatchery into Spring Meadow Lake near Helena didn’t take place. It also could prohibit the stocking of 150,000 trout in Canyon Ferry Reservoir this spring and another 125,000 in Holter Reservoir.
And depending on how long the ban is in place, it could halt the anticipated shipment in the next eight weeks of almost 6 million trout eggs from the national hatchery to in-state and out-of-state hatcheries. The Ennis National Fish Hatchery is a division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is a bureau of the Interior Department.
Schweitzer said his administration and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials are trying to establish lines of communication with federal agencies about wildlife policies affecting Montana but have found those efforts frustrating.
“We are trying to start a conversation, but it’s pretty tough with the federal government,” Schweitzer said.
Montana officials have sent a demand letter asking for details of wildlife movements in the state and plans for moving wildlife in Montana elsewhere.
“We would like to know what wildlife they are shipping around Montana and what wildlife they are selling,” Schweitzer said, noting that there is a long history of federal wildlife agencies not responding to concerns and questions from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
“When we ask for a modicum of cooperation from them, we get no answers,” the governor said. “We would like to get a resolution. We are hoping to get those answers.”
Schweitzer and others said they believe there is time to resolve the questions relating to the fish stocking plans without harming future fishing opportunities.
“We’re trying to work through some of those issues between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the governor’s office and our own staff, trying to figure out the exact implications of the executive order,” said Dave Risley, administrator of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ fish and wildlife division. “To be frank, when it first came out, the fish angle didn’t even cross my mind.”
Eric Roberts, a Helena-based fisheries biologist, said the order typically wouldn’t have affected stocking trout in Canyon Ferry and Holter reservoirs. Usually, his department milks the eggs from trout in those water bodies, and then sends the fertilized eggs to the Big Spring state fish hatchery in Lewistown, where they grow large enough to be returned as adult fish that can’t be easily consumed by walleye and other predator fish.
But that state hatchery was found to be contaminated with cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in 2004, leading to the temporary shutdown for renovations that are ongoing. To keep the trout supply going, the state reached an agreement with the Ennis National Fish Hatchery, which agreed to provide eggs and raise the trout instead.
“So if the executive order isn’t lifted at some point, we might not be able to stock this year,” Roberts said. “We work on five-year plans, because they need to grow the fish, so we can’t just say we’re changing the stocking plan for this year.”
Sean Hinderson with the Ennis fish hatchery said it typically ships about 17 million eggs to 15 to 20 hatcheries in the lower 48 states, including Montana, and workers are gearing up to ship 5.7 million eggs in the next two months. If the ban remains in place, they can put the eggs in “chillers” to slow down their development for up to three weeks. If it goes on much longer, though, the eggs will probably be destroyed.
“We’ll run out of chiller space and have to start throwing the eggs out,” Hinderson said. “(The ban) has complicated things, but if it gets resolved in the next week or so, we’ll be fine.”
The hatchery also has large “breeder fish” that produce the eggs, and they typically stock those older, retired fish in about half a dozen ponds in Montana, including Spring Meadow. Those will be thrown out if the Ennis facility runs out of space.
“We can hold all the retired brood stock until June or July 2012 and still put them in ponds,” Hinderson said. “But we’ll have to feed and care for them; ideally we would have liked to stock them out in December, but we have the space to hold them.”
He said he “can’t imagine” what they’ll do with the 275,000 fish slated for Canyon Ferry and Holter reservoirs if they can’t be stocked.
“I hope it doesn’t go on that long,” Hinderson said.
Joe Maurier, FWP director, said he’s not sure how long the executive order will be in place. In fact, he’s not sure if additional species will be affected, but said that’s part of the point of the ban.
“That’s part of the problem with the feds; in general, we don’t really know what they’re doing in Montana,” Maurier said. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of it. ... Maybe there are other species that would be affected, but we really don’t know.”
He wasn’t overly concerned about the impacts to the hatchery or fisheries that are stocked, noting that it’s not that hard to grow fish eggs.
“We just need to get answers from the feds about what’s going on with the bison, and hopefully that will be done quickly,” Maurier said.