Ennis Fish Hatchery – New director and national award give hatchery cause to celebrate

Connie Keeler-Foster, new director at the Ennis National Fish Hatchery, stands with assistant director Sean Henderson. Keeler-Foster took over at the hatchery on Jan. 18 after former director Tom Pruitt retired. Photo by Greg Lemon

Connie Keeler-Foster, new director at the Ennis National Fish Hatchery, stands with assistant director Sean Henderson. Keeler-Foster took over at the hatchery on Jan. 18 after former director Tom Pruitt retired. Photo by Greg Lemon

For Connie Keeler-Foster, it’s never too late to make a big change.

The new director of Ennis National Fish Hatchery hails from New Mexico and is excited about her recent move to Ennis.

“You’re never too old for an adventure,” she said.

Keeler-Foster was the assistant director at the Dexter National Fish Hatchery in Dexter, N.M. When the opening came in Ennis, she and her husband Bill, both were excited.

“He likes to hunt and fish and he’d been wanting to move north for several years,” she said. “I knew that I was looking for a change.”

The Ennis Fish Hatchery is a rainbow trout broodstock hatchery, the biggest in the nation producing about 20 million eggs each year, Keeler-Foster said.

A broodstock hatchery essentially raises adult fish to produce the eggs for other hatcheries to produce the fish. However, the Ennis hatchery does raise some stock for local projects.

For instance, this year the hatchery will stock 50,000 Harrison Lake rainbows into Hebgen Lake. The Harrison Lake strain of rainbows has proven to be resistant to whirling disease.

Keeler-Foster has always been interested in what she calls the “cold slimys.” While other kids seemed to be interested in studying animals, not many were into lizards, frogs and fish like she was.

“It was all I ever wanted to do,” Keeler-Foster said.

She eventually earned a PhD in conservation genetics, studying the Rio Grande cutthroat trout.

Her experience in conservation science will help at the hatchery, where she is looking to continue to help state and federal agencies looking at conserving native species in Montana such at grayling and westslope cutthroat trout.

However, as the economy struggles, the funding for hatcheries is taking a hit as well. Though the numbers aren’t final, the Ennis Fish Hatchery could take a $30,000 to $40,000 cut in their budget, Keeler-Foster said. That makes it even more important to diversify their operations a bit to meet demands as other hatcheries face closure.

One study the hatchery is currently working on with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish health center in Bozeman is plant-based feed for their fish, she said. Typically, hatcheries feed their fish some sort of fish-based feed. But new studies are showing that plant-based feeds work well, she said.

Another project the hatchery will be working on is detailed documentation of the different genetic strains of rainbow trout they produce.

The Ennis Fish Hatchery produces six different strains of rainbow trout and each has very unique characteristics, Keeler-Foster said.

The hatchery is also going to be looking at producing triploids, or sterile fish, that can be used to stock rivers where hybridization with native fish is a concern.

Keeler-Foster is also looking to continue to expand the hatchery’s outreach to the local community.

One of her first events will be bringing Ennis school kids out on an Earth Day event where they can learn about the hatchery and plant trees and shrubs on the grounds. The hatchery is also hiring three youth conservation corps employees this summer, which will likely be local high schoolers.

Keeler-Foster took over the reigns from retired hatchery manager Tom Pruitt.

Under his guidance the fish hatchery won the National Environmental Leadership Award last year for their installation of a large solar panel system. It was a huge honor and the only time the hatchery has won the award, said assistant hatchery director Sean Henderson.

The solar panel project started in 2009, Henderson said. Pruitt’s idea was to use federal stimulus money to build a demonstration project of how alternative energy can be incorporated in their facilities. The solar panels can produce up to 24 kilowatts of energy, which is about 90 percent of the electrical needs for the hatchery, Henderson said.

The electricity not used by the hatchery, goes back into the power grid, he said.

The cost of the project was about $250,000 and the solar panels have a life span of about 20 years. The actual savings will be hard to calculate, he said. But as the cost of electricity continues to rise, the benefits of the solar panels will be more evident.

The solar panels add natural efficiency to an already efficient system. The fish hatchery sits at the head of Blaine Springs, a natural water source that produces an amazing 15,000 gallons per minute of clean cold water to feed the hatchery operations before flowing on down to the Madison River.

Ennis Fish Hatchery is open seven days a week from 7:30 to 5. For more information call 682-4847 or go online to www.fws.gov/ennis.

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