It’s been cobbled together as an advanced conservation hatchery for more than a decade, and now the Sekokini Springs Westslope Cutthroat Isolation Facility near Coram, Mont., has the final funding it needs for completion.
Last week, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council approved about $1.8 million for the state-run hatchery that’s located off the North Fork Flathead River near Blankenship Bridge.
That money will be put to work over the next few years completing a hatchery master plan that involves outdoor pond and stream habitat to complement the indoor isolation facility for wild westslope cutthroat trout.
It is one of only two hatcheries in the state where wild, genetically pure strains of trout are accepted.
Because of disease risks, other hatcheries operate exclusively with internal fish sources, relying heavily on the state’s only westslope cutthroat brood stock at the Washoe Park Trout Hatchery in Anaconda.
The mission of Sekokini Springs will be to serve as a diversity resource for the Washoe Park hatchery and Montana waters that have lost genetically pure strains of westslope cutthroat trout over the years, said Brian Marotz, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist who has shepherded the Sekokini hatchery since it was acquired by the state in 1998.
“This place is really going to help us learn a lot and conserve the maximum amount of genetic diversity we can in the species,” Marotz said.
Prior to 1998, the hatchery was privately operated as a rainbow trout farm for about 40 years on land leased from the Flathead National Forest under a special use permit. The state got the improvements — mainly a 60-foot by 40-foot building with concrete raceways — for about $70,000.
Before the purchase, the state rented the facility to test how it would work for rearing cutthroat.
“It was really the ultimate for growing wild trout,” Marotz said, mainly because it is fed by artesian spring water that mimics natural water temperatures.
“It gets up to 65 degrees in the summer ... so it’s similar to wild surface water, which is really important to wild trout,” Marotz said.
In the early part of the last decade, the building was insulated to prevent “rain” from developing in the interior and damaged siding was replaced. Most importantly, the artesian springs that supply the facility from about 25 yards away were capped and piping was installed to secure the water supply from airborne contaminants.
It’s called an isolation facility because it is used to quarantine juvenile cutthroat collected from wild sources — strains of cutthroat with the slightest of genetic differences from one drainage to the next. The fish are held in raceways and tested for disease and genetic purity and eventually certified for use as a hatchery resource.
“This is for the future. Sekokini Springs will allow us to have an alternative to the only stock we now have. We can grow up to four unique strains at any given time, separate from each other in isolation,” Marotz said. “We are growing individual, unique strains that are different from our state strain” at Washoe Park.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had identified only about 50 genetically pure strains in the wild to draw from, mostly in South Fork drainages. While cutthroats in other drainages often still look like cutthroats, they have been exposed to hybridization with rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout strains.
“Our wild sources have diminished so much,” Marotz said. “What we don’t want out there (in the wild) is a monoculture” that would be vulnerable to disease.
Ironically, Sekokini Springs is believed to have been a primary source for rainbow hybridization in the lower Flathead River system. The hatchery likely “leaked” fish over the years into the North Fork Flathead River, Marotz said.
Currently, the hatchery is entirely contained and its waste water is disposed of through a drainfield system called a percolation gallery.
The new funding will clear the way for a whole new operation.
First, the building will be expanded. Then, two large still-functioning ponds will be restored and converted into four ponds.
“Those will be our outdoor rearing areas,” Marotz said.
Another pond will be created to grow wild feed. Grasshoppers and meal worms already are being cultivated at the hatchery.
Springwater separate from the building’s water supply will be used to supply the ponds, as well as a “living stream” that will course down a series of benches in a zigzag pattern toward the river.
The outdoor habitat will support aquatic insects as a partial food source, along with the cultivated food sources. The hatchery will have relatively low population densities, capable of producing about 12,000 fish a year for stocking purposes. Combined, it is all aimed at maintaining wild traits in fish that are raised at the hatchery.
The outdoor waterworks will include basins for collecting fish and safeguards such as a biological filtering system, plus a two-way fish trap to prevent fish from leaving the facility and fish from entering it from the North Fork River.
The $1.8 million funding package includes a budget for ongoing maintenance and operations. The hatchery is part of the Hungry Horse Mitigation Project that is overseen by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and funded by the Bonneville Power Administration to compensate for ecological impacts that resulted from construction of Hungry Horse Dam.
Montana’s representatives on the council, Bruce Measure and Rhonda Whiting, both noted the importance of the hatchery project.
“This has been a long process to get to this point, about 10 years, and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks worked cooperatively with the council and independent science boards the whole time,” Measure and Whiting said in a joint statement. “We congratulate them on seeing this project to fruition. This facility combines innovative hatchery technology and natural, restored habitat at the site to conserve the remaining genetic diversity in Montana’s state fish, the westslope cutthroat trout, which now occupy only about 9 percent of their historic range.”