SUSAN GALLAGHER Associated Press Writer HELENA
A Montana Senate committee is weighing several bills to strengthen funding of the Fort Peck fish hatchery, which opened in 2006 and faces a looming shortage of money for operations. The Senate Fi sh and Game Committee heard testimony Thursday on the measures, sponsored by Sidney Republican Don Steinbeisser, but took no action. One of the bills requires using federal funds to offset shortfalls in revenue for operation and maintenance of the Fort Peck Multi-Species Fish Hatchery, which rears warm-water species such as walleye. Another would restructure fishing licenses so that all include a $5 surcharge now paid only by people who fish for warm-water species. Money from the surcharge would be dedicated to the hatchery. A third bill mandates that any available federal money for state fish hatchEries be allocated equitably among all nine hatcheries controlled by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Fort Peck is one of the nine. Walleyes Unlimited of Montana led testimony in favor of the three bills. Opponents included Montana Trout Unlimited. The Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks was mixed, opposing part of the trio of bills but not taking a position on part of the package. Walleyes Unlimited Executive Director Bob Gilbert suggested attention focused on coldwater fish, specifically trout, has led to neglect of needs at the Fort Peck hatchery. It deserves more of the money raised through a federal tax on fishing gear and boats, a tax that walleye anglers pay just as their coldwater counterparts do, Gilbert said. Trout Unlimited said the bills pose assorted drawbacks, among them a hit to other fish hatcheries for the good of Fort Peck's. Folding the $5 warm-water surcharge into a standard fee for fishing licenses would be unfair to people unaware of an opt-out provision, said Mark Aagenes of the trout organization. The $5 would be in addition to $18 now charged for fishing licenses. The hatchery is funded through an account built with the $5 surcharge collected before and after the hatchery opened, money that adds up to about $230,000 a year. The account is being spent faster than it is fueled, and Fish, Wildlife & Parks predicts a shortfall in a couple of years. Operating the Fort Peck hatchery costs about $400,000 a year and if fish production there was maximized, the cost would rise to $500,000, the agency said. Also Thursday, the Senate Fish and Game Committee heard testimony on a bill to declare walleye a species native to Montana. Opponents of the measure advanced by Walleyes Unlimited and sponsored by Steinbeisser said there is no science to support that status. Walleyes Unlimited contends there is no science to show walleye are not native. Conclusions that they were transplanted rely excessively on the Lewis and Clark expedition's apparent failure to catch walleye some 200 years ago, the organization said. The committee took no action. The funding bills are Senate Bill 13, Senate Bill 14 and Senate Bill 16. The walleye bill is Senate Bill 15.