Hatchery cutbacks

Big Springs Trout Hatchery Manager Jim Drissell is shown here at the hatchery in 2014. Drissell and other hatchery managers around the state are facing budget cutbacks this year. 
File photo by Charlie Denison

By: 
Deb Hill
News-Argus Managing Editor

Unexpected result of state budget cuts: smaller trout in ponds and lakes

Big Springs Fish Hatchery will be placing fewer large trout in local fishing holes for the next two years as a result of cuts to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks budget.
“We’ll be reducing the number of cold water fish, trout and salmon, of 7 inch or larger size by 50 percent in 2018 and 2019,” said Big Springs Hatchery Manager Jim Drissell. “This won’t affect the number of smaller fish, in the 4-inch range, though.”
Drissell explained the plan is part of the overall reduction to the FWP budget due to the state budget shortfall.
“The idea behind this is, we had to make cuts to stay within our budget,” Drissell said. “Bigger fish are more expensive to stock, as there is more time and resources involved.”
However he reminded anglers Fish, Wildlife and Parks only stocks ponds and lakes, not streams and rivers, where the trout are wild.

Bigger trout cost more
A trout can take somewhere between 10 and 12 months to grow to 7 inches in size, Drissell said. The hatchery feeds trout an age-appropriate diet; starting with a food he said looks like “dust” and moving to pelleted feed as the fish grows. The fish diet is purchased from suppliers. The older (larger) a fish is, the more money has been invested in feeding it.
In addition, Drissell explained, larger fish can cost more to stock. Fewer of them fit in a tank on a stocking truck, so it may take more trips to transport them to the water to be stocked.
  While the number of fish being produced and stocked may be down, Drissell said he is not laying any employees off or reducing hours.
“For the next couple of years the fish will just have a little more elbow room,” he said.
A chart posted on the FWP website shows exactly where the hatchery will make the cuts – which ponds, lakes and reservoirs will receive fewer fish. Overall, close to 281,000 fewer fish will be stocked by Big Springs Hatchery in 2018 and more than 283,000 fewer in 2019.

Research also affected
FWP Fisheries Biologist Clint Smith said the budget cuts required changes to stocking plans for Central Montana waters.
“Each biologist makes a stocking plan for the waters they manage. The plan goes to regional managers and then to Helena for approval,” Smith said.
Typically plans are generated from survey results – research done on each body of water to determine how well the fish are doing, whether they are healthy, what age classes are represented and how heavy the harvest has been. Some of that research may be delayed as Smith works to match the new budget figures.
“We use survey information to guide our stocking requests,” Smith said. “Some waters we know quite a bit about. For something like Martinsdale Reservoir, we’ve got over 40 years of data and we know how to manage it.”
Other areas require more observation.
“Managing Ackley Lake will be a bit more dynamic now, due to the introduction of tiger muskie,” Smith said. “Some of the warm water fisheries, like the bass ponds, tend to be more variable. Some years we get a lot more winterkill. Other years the fish are able to successfully naturally reproduce. I try to sample every couple of years to keep up with the changes.”
While no cuts have been made to personnel in Smith’s office, he said he has been asked to cut back on some of his survey and inventory work, as well as reducing mileage.
“We need to take about 15 percent out of our operations budget,” Smith said. “We’ll have to look at our priorities. For example, the frequency with which we sample the warm water fisheries may decrease to every three years instead of every two years.”

FWP balancing budget without cutting personnel
Greg Lemon, administrator for FWP’s communication and education division in Helena, said one reason for the agency’s reduced budget had to do with federal money the state receives for fisheries.
“We had less base budget coming out of the 2017 legislative session than we had going into it,” Lemon said. “One reason had to do with the federal Dingell-Johnson Act funds. That’s an excise tax on fishing tackle and equipment. We have to match those funds, three to one. Part of the reason our budget went down is because we reduced the federal ask [amount of D-J funds requested] due to lack of money to match it.”
Lemon said the reduction in the fisheries budget amounts to about $800,000.
“To figure out how to make that work, we had to reprioritize,” he said. “The fisheries managers worked with Helena to revise the plans. There were three things we all agreed to: no increase in federal funding, no cuts to permanent staff and cuts must be sustainable through this biennium.”
Finding areas to cut in an already tight budget means taking a hard look at programs and services, Lemon said.
“The stocking program is one of those big ticket items that can be reduced and still perform some level of service. We recognize that all the resources we manage are really valuable, and make Montana the place that it is,” he said. “We take that obligation really seriously, but we understand we still have to meet budget priorities.”
Two areas of the fisheries budget will see an increase, however. More funding is available for the aquatic invasive species program, which is paid for by a fee on hydro facilities and the AIS pass anglers purchase, and funding to operate fishing access sites. However, Lemon said, the funding for these programs is very specific and cannot be used for anything else.

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