- Associated Press - Monday, May 19, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Rob Holm says he’s starting to sound a lot like Chicken Little, preaching the sky is falling.

Holm, manager at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery near Riverdale, and his crews have been fighting what seems to be an upstream battle for funding at a time when the popularity of sport fishing is at an all-time high in North Dakota.

Nationally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency in charge of national fish hatcheries, has been on a push to close what it considers “lower priority facilities.”

In March 2013, the USFWS outlined a review of its operation aimed at improving efficiency. As part of the review, the service established funding priorities for fish raised in the 70 national fish hatcheries.

Two of the those hatcheries - the Garrison Dam hatchery and the Valley City Hatchery - are in North Dakota.

They are classified as mitigation hatcheries, facilities built to assuage the loss of native fisheries resulting from the construction of federal dams.

The review ranked funding priorities in the following order: recovery of federally listed threatened or endangered species; restoration of imperiled aquatic species; tribal partnerships and trust responsibilities; recreational fishing and other propagation programs for non-native species like trout and salmon.

In a Sept. 25, 2013, letter from USFWS director Dan Ashe to regional directors, closing hatcheries was taken off the table for this year because “one or more of our employees decided to break faith with this process and prematurely release a draft regional implementation plan to congressional offices,” Ashe wrote.

“As a result, we cannot move forward with our planned 2014 implementation … therefore (we) must implement a strategy to reduce NDHS operations without facility closures in FY 2014.”

Holm said historically, those same priorities always have been in place. But with funding a big question from year to year, it’s been a real juggling act to plan for the long term.

“We’re feeling it,” he told The Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/1gvnrqV ), referring to the budget crunch.

In short, the USFWS‘ long-term goal is to close hatcheries or place them into “caretaker status,” reduce fish propagation programs and to end financial support of recreational fishing programs.

“That’s the direction we’re being told to go,” Holm said.

The hatchery situation is not isolated to North Dakota.

In the 2014 budget for the Department of Interior, the USFWS is funded at $1.4 billion, $32 million lower than the 2013 level.

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