- 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.

Within that total, $1 million is to compensate ranchers for losses to wolves, $2 million to battle quagga and zebra mussels in the West, $3.5 million to control Asian carp in the Great Lakes and $15 million for a program to prevent the sage grouse from becoming an endangered species.

Overall, federal fish hatcheries make up 5 percent of the budget. Of that $63.4 million budgeted for hatcheries, $27.9 million went to support the 70 national hatcheries while $35.5 million, or 56 percent, went to support administration, technology and fish health centers.

Spread out across the 70 hatcheries, it comes down to an average of $398,571 per hatchery.

North Dakota’s two hatcheries with five full-time employees received a total of $475,194 in 2012 - $288,447 for Garrison and $186,747 for Valley City.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, sponsored the Consolidated Appropriation Act of 2014 to keep hatcheries open.

Other groups like the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Sportfishing and Boating Partnership Council and the Colorado Senate have joined forces to pressure the Department of Interior, Congress and the USFWS to continue to support recreational fishing and the recovery of threatened and endangered fish.

Holm said there is a push for hatcheries to look for funding outside of federal sources, something that has been done in North Dakota for decades.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department and the state’s two federal hatcheries have worked in concert for years, splitting the workload and some of the financial burden.

Greg Power, fisheries chief for the Game and Fish Department, said the state gives the hatcheries $280,000 to help fund operations, but there is more to the partnership.

The relationship is a “three-pronged stool,” as he called it. Game and Fish personnel collect eggs in the spring, the hatcheries grow them and the Game and Fish Department stocks them.

With the state’s contributions to the effort, Power said the total financial effort is near a half-million dollars when labor and other costs are factored in to the equation.

North Dakota participation in fishing is not typical of that around the country, however. Nationally, Power said the numbers are fairly stagnant.

But the spending generated from recreational fishing speaks volumes, Power said.

A recent North Dakota State University study showed anglers spend $425 million directly on fishing plus there is an additional $478 million a year in secondary economic benefits.

Power said it’s a prime example of “bad top-down government” that doesn’t look at the big picture.

“I understand there are other priorities,” he said. “But these hatcheries are extremely valuable to the federal government in terms of the return on the investment.”

Power said with the partnership between the Game and Fish Department and the hatchery, the jobs of making fish for recreational fishing and working with threatened and endangered species like the pallid sturgeon are getting done.

And, getting done efficiently. Holm said the walleyes that are stocked in North Dakota waters cost less than 1 cent each.

“We can’t get more efficient at what they are doing,” Power said.

Holm said it’s become a matter of making the most of what they have to work with.

“We have a good system of give and take here,” Holm said. “What we need is more give and take at the federal level.”

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Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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