An executive order issued by Gov. Brian Schweitzer earlier this month could impact how the Ennis National Fish Hatchery operates by limiting their distribution of fish eggs and live fish.
The order was issued Dec. 13 and prohibits the transport of live fish or wildlife in Montana to or from any U.S. Department of Interior managed lands or facilities without approval. Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operates the Ennis fish hatchery, it falls under the auspices of this order.
“Unfortunately it kind of falls during the time of year when we’re going into the peak part of our spawning season,” said Sean Henderson, assistant hatchery director.
The Ennis fish hatchery is a rainbow trout brood stock hatchery and produces about 20 million eggs a year. They spawn six different strains of rainbow trout at the facility. This is the time of year when the hatchery begins shipping eggs to other hatcheries around the state and the country.
“We have 5.4 million eggs scheduled to ship in the next eight weeks,” Henderson said.
During the next four months, the hatchery is scheduled to ship nearly 12 million eggs. That is if they receive approval from Schweitzer’s office.
The executive order was issued to bring the U.S. Department of Interior back in line with the way live animal transport ought to be done in Montana and other states, said Mike Volesky, Schweitzer’s natural resource policy advisor.
Wildlife management within the state should always be coordinated with state officials, Volesky said. However, that coordination and communication from the DOI has often been difficult to facilitate.
“(The order) is simply restating what should have always been the case, but the interior has been pretty lax about,” he said.
Though the order encompasses all fish and wildlife, it focuses largely on the ongoing controversy over bison.
The order states: “The United States Department of the Interior has demonstrated a lack of responsiveness and a cavalier attitude toward wildlife disease management in Montana and the West, including the perpetuation of brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area through the continued feeding of elk at the National Elk Refuge located in Wyoming, immediately south of Yellowstone Park.”
The order also states the DOI has a long history of perpetuating genetically impure bison in their facilities in Montana.
Additionally, the order addresses the elk feeding facilities in Wyoming and the risk they could pose to elk, deer, bison and other animals and livestock in Montana by potentially being a vector for transmitting Chronic Wasting Disease, which is a brain disease that can affect ungulates. The disease is present in Wyoming, but thus far has not been found in Montana.
Chronic Wasting Disease could pose a dire threat to Montana’s wildlife, Volesky said. Yet the federal government continues to bunch elk into feedlots just south of Yellowstone National Park.
“Let’s wake up and do something about this before something like Chronic Wasting Disease hits and it’s too late,” he said.
The intent of the order isn’t to prohibit normal operations from places like the Ennis National Fish Hatchery, Volesky said. It’s intent is to force the DOI into a more communicative relationship with the state.
“How about talking to us every time you’re shipping wildlife so we know what’s going on,” he said.
The DOI has been fairly quiet in response to Schweitzer’s order, issuing the following statement from Ken Salazar, secretary of the DOI:
“Secretary Salazar has shown that he is committed to maintaining open and effective lines of communication with Governor Schweitzer and the state of Montana. 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.”
Internally, the DOI has told Schweitzer’s staff that they plan on having a response to the order within the year, Volesky said.
“It didn’t seem like there was a lot of urgency to that response,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Ennis fish hatchery will look for approval for egg shipments. Just this past week, they received approval from the state for a variety of shipments, including one to a state fish hatchery near Billings and another to a federal fish hatchery near Kalispell.
Fish eggs can be chilled for up to three weeks before they must be destroyed, Henderson said.
“My hope, and I believe it’s everybody’s hope, is that this will blow over sooner rather than later,” Henderson said of the issue between the state and the DOI. “With any luck it won’t have any serious consequences for anybody’s operation.”