Budget proposals call for closing Natches hatchery, cutting back Oak Creek elk feeding
The Naches Hatchery would close and the funding for the Oak Creek Wildlife Area elk-feeding program would be reduced as part of a $10 million shortfall facing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife under the proposed state House and Senate budgets.
Losing the Naches Hatchery “would be devastating” to trout fishing in this part of the state, said state fisheries biologist Eric Anderson, who oversees the department’s lake-stocking program in the Yakima-based Region 3.
“The Naches Hatchery furnishes virtually all of the catchable trout in Yakima County and Kittitas County, and our region, the Yakima-Kittitas upper basin, is really a trout mecca,” Anderson said.
“(Losing the hatchery) would be a devastating blow, unless (state fish managers) can bring them in from another hatchery outside the region, and I can’t imagine that. It would be like robbing Peter to pay Paul, with other regions wanting to be able to keep their hatchery fish to provide opportunities in their areas.
“It would be a huge blow to us locally.”
The Naches Hatchery’s production of rainbow, cutthroat and kokanee accounts for 86 percent of the catchable trout stocked in the lakes and ponds of South Central Washington.
The budget shortfall would also mean a reduction of $214,000 from the program that helps feed elk during the winter in Yakima and Kittitas counties.
“It’s a pretty unpalatable range of options there,” said state wildlife department spokesman Bruce Botka. “That’s one of the things we want the Legislature to know, if we have to live without the revenue that we need.”
The department’s projected revenue is already expected to be $6 million to $6.5 million below what it would be authorized to spend, and department officials say they would need an additional $4 million on top of that to keep recreational and commercial fishing opportunities at their current levels.
To make up for that shortfall of $10 million to $10.5 million, the Legislature would have to authorize additional funding from the state general fund. The only other option would be to boost revenue from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, in one of two ways: Either raise all hunting and fishing licenses 13 percent, or hike fees by 22 percent for fishing licenses and 6 percent for hunting licenses.
Either of those would generate department revenue by an estimated $10.4 million, thereby erasing the shortfall. But either fee-increase plan would have to be approved by the Legislature.
Another ramification of the Senate’s budget would be the inability to complete the final piece of a four-phase land acquisition known as “Heart of the Cascades,” 4,000 acres of forest and wildlife habitat north and east of the State Route 410 corridor.
While the House’s proposed budget called for $75 million for prioritized projects funded through the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, the Senate’s budget calls for $65 million and Gov. Jay Inslee’s splits the difference at $70 million.
The coalition already had $2 million in federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund dedicated toward the final phase, but the money can only be used for the purchase if the state can come up with $2 million in matching funds. That matching state funding would be there under the proposed House budget, but not under the Senate’s.
Most of the roughly 6 1/4 square miles of land involved in the final piece of the Heart of the Cascades project lie between the Wenas and L.T. Murray wildlife areas, south of the North Fork Manastash Creek.
The current owners, primarily timber industry giant Plum Creek along with a few private landowners, have agreed in principle to selling the land. Upon completion of the sale, the land would move under the management of the state wildlife department and would all but erase the traditional “checkerboard ownership” from that region.
The wildlife department spent $464,000 during the 2014 fiscal year on its winter feeding program, which typically feeds just over half of the 10,000-strong Yakima elk herd. The loss of $214,000 from the elk-feeding program would be significant, but probably wouldn’t have too detrimental an impact next winter because of the mild winter of 2014-15, said regional wildlife program manager Scott McCorquodale.
“Our barns are full, and we’ve got potentially a pretty major surplus this year,” McCorquodale said. “We’re not going to have any problems next year. But for the longer haul, that’s potentially an issue for sure.”
The department annually accumulates hay for its regional elk-feeding program — some of the hay purchased, some contributed by Northwest Alloys, an Alcoa subsidiary. Whatever remains at the end of the feeding season can be held over for the following winter.
Regional elk managers, though, don’t have the storage capacity for all of this past winter’s surplus hay, regional director Mike Livingston said, and not all of the hay will still be good for the elk by next winter.
“If we have a winter like we did this year, that won’t be a problem for us,” Livingston said. “If we have a severe winter, though, that could be a big problem.”