Sekokini Springs helps save native cutthroat

Brian Marotz stands at Sekokini Springs near Blankenship. Dave Reese photo
By David Reese
On a bench overlooking the Flathead River lie the remnants of one family's dreams - and the beginning of what could help save Montana's state fish.

Pure, clear water streams out of a hillside at Sekokini Springs.

The water tumbles down the hillside toward a series of nine ponds, most of them dried up, that were once used as a commercial rainbow trout hatchery operated by the King family more than 20 years ago.

Old, weather-beaten headgates stand in the mud of the empty ponds. Automatic fish feeders dangle over two ponds at the north end of the hatchery, reminders of the defunct commercial operation that sits on a bench downstream from Blankenship Bridge.

Above the ponds is a hatchery building, a 2,500-square-foot, metal-sided structure that houses the runways where rainbow trout were once raised. It's here among the remnants of the former commercial fish hatchery that new dreams are being born.

To Brian Marotz, fisheries conservation manager with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the hatchery could be so much more and possibly help save Montana's state fish, the westslope cutthroat trout.

It's Marotz's goal to revive Sekokini Springs to a state-of-the-art interpretive center and experimental fish hatchery that would raise pure westslope cutthroat trout. The hatchery is on 10 acres of federal land but is owned by the state of Montana and operated under a special-use permit.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks uses the hatchery runways to draw milt from wild sources for its captive brood in Anaconda, but not much else. Marotz has been pushing for this project going on eight years, and next week he will meet at the hatchery site with officials from Bonneville Power Administration to discuss the $2 million he's requesting to renovate the hatchery.

Just below the hatchery through a screen of tall trees you can see the river rushing past. In these waters swim rainbow trout and cutthroat trout, two species whose genes have mixed, to the detriment of pure cutthroat trout.

Cutthroat trout are present in only nine percent of their historic range in Montana, due mainly to habitat loss and interbreeding with other species of non-native trout, according to Marotz.

The hatchery at Sekokini Springs would become an experimental "genetic conservation" facility for westslope cutthroat, the only one of its kind in Montana. The state has another smaller facility on the Sun River, but that facility raises an "eastslope" form of westslope cutthroat, Marotz said.

Fish raised at Sekokini Springs would help restore wild populations in specific river drainages.

On a tour of Sekokini Springs last week, Marotz spoke enthusiastically about what he envisions at the site. A stream would wind throughout the property before dropping into the river. On its way to the river, the stream would fill a series of ponds and channels where the public could walk or use wheelchairs to view fish.

That, says Marotz, is part of building an "emotional attachment" to Montana's state fish. Above the ponds, in the existing hatchery building, the gravity-fed runways from Sekokini Springs would continue to raise purebred westslope cutthroat trout. "The legacy [of this project] is to help make sure there are places 100 years from now where you can catch the same fish that Lewis and Clark did," Marotz said.

THE FEDERAL Bonneville Power Administration is in charge of marketing the wholesale electrical power generated at dams on the Columbia River basin, including two of the basin's largest hydroelectric facilities: Hungry Horse Dam on the South Fork of the Flathead River and Libby Dam on the Kootenai River.

To mitigate for the impacts of its dams on wildlife, Bonneville Power doles out about $139 million a year to four states in the Columbia Basin, plus federal and tribal agencies that manage wildlife. Montana gets about $2.5 million a year - a disproportionate figure, Marotz says, when considering how much Montana contributes to the downstream hydroelectric facilities.

Montana accounts for 40 percent of the entire United States' hydroelectric storage and 20 percent of the Columbia Basin's hydroelectric storage, Marotz said. "We're the engines for the system," he said. "Montana has huge impacts from the dams, yet we're getting only a small fraction of the $139 million."

The hatchery would be a special project using funds from Hungry Horse Dam mitigation. If approved, the money for Sekokini Springs would come out of BPA's capital plan, not the annual mitigation budget, so it might not affect funding for other current or proposed wildlife-mitigation projects.

If the project is approved, money for the project would become available July 1.

"The day that thing is signed, I'm up there," Marotz said. Because the project is on Forest Service land, an environmental review must be completed. An independent scientific review panel also must give Sekokini Springs the nod.

The panel recently told Marotz it questioned several items in the plan.

For instance, the panel questioned the way the state handled the hybridization issue in the past by "swamping" existing fisheries with additional purebred fish (Marotz said "swamping" existing fish populations with purebred species like cutthroat trout increases the odds that pure fish will breed with pure fish, but long-term monitoring shows the technique is less effective than removing the non-natives first before planting pure fish.)

The panel, Marotz said, was advising things "that just weren't practical in remote parts of Montana. Every point (the panel made) was as if they didn't read or didn't understand" the documents on the project. The things it focused on showed a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the project, Marotz added.

The only cutthroat trout that are certified for natural population restoration are the "M012" - Montana's pure genetic strain of westslope cutthroat trout - which are raised at Washoe Park Hatchery in Anaconda.

This broodstock was founded using fish caught in the South Fork of the Flathead and from the Clark Fork River. The South Fork of the Flathead remains Montana's purest refuge of westslope cutthroat trout.

Sekokini would allow the state to develop drainage-specific strains of westslope cutthroat to restore wild spawning runs.

The Blackfeet Indian tribe uses the word "Sekokini" to describe "birch by the water." It's Marotz's goal that Sekokini Springs represents something much larger: preservation of Montana's state fish.

"Unless we can get aggressive and do things like this, we aren't meeting our agency's goal of preserving and protecting wildlife," he said. "This helps achieve that."

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