Area residents fight for Brule heritageBRULE — Since January, the town of Brule has worried about the future of the Brule Hatchery. On Thursday, residents fought to protect their local landmark at an information meeting about potential changes to Wisconsin’s hatchery system.
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
BRULE — Since January, the town of Brule has worried about the future of the Brule Hatchery. On Thursday, residents fought to protect their local landmark at an information meeting about potential changes to Wisconsin’s hatchery system.
“We want to listen and we want to continue to engage the community up here about what’s going to happen in the future,” said John Gozdzialski, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources northern regional director.
Gozdzialski, who works out of Spooner, was joined at the meeting by DNR officials from Madison and local DNR managers. The fisheries program faces a $3 million shortfall in its budget and is mulling over possible solutions, including the closure of fish propagation facilities like the Brule Hatchery.
“We can’t lose sight of the rich heritage of fishing that we have in Wisconsin as a state,” Gozdzialski said. “The message here today is we are all in this together.”
About 55 people attended Thursday’s meeting at the Brule Town Hall, including members of the Brule Town Board and Douglas County Board of Supervisors. Both bodies recently passed resolutions opposing the closure of the Brule rearing station, as did the Superior City Council on Tuesday night.
“No decision has been made to close the Brule station,” Gozdzialski said. The final decision will be made by Wisconsin DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp.
Sen. Bob Jauch, D-Poplar, Rep. Nick Milroy, D-South Range, and Rep. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, also attended the meeting to listen to their constituents and to answer questions.
Local residents spoke for about an hour Thursday night, offering impassioned pleas and stressing how important the Brule Hatchery is to the area.
Kate Johnson, a longtime resident of Brule, talked about growing up a few blocks from the hatchery. She remembers sneaking to the property as a girl and watching the fish during the years when the facility still raised sturgeon.
“We don’t have a lot that we can expand on (in Brule),” Johnson said. “This hatchery means so much to us. It’s part of our heritage.”
Paul Helbach offered a similar view. For years, he has taken his grandchildren to the Brule River, and a stop at the hatchery is always on the itinerary.
“It’s mandatory that they go to the fish hatchery,” Helbach said. “And they’re going to become fishermen because of that.”
In an era when children seem more interested in television and video games than hunting and fishing, Helbach said, it’s important for facilities like the Brule Hatchery to remain open. Seeing the fish and touring the station gives children a taste of the outdoors and may plant the seeds for a lifetime of fishing, canoeing or hunting.
“They’re not here tonight, but they need a voice,” Helbach said.
The Brule Hatchery opened in 1927. It raised fish to stock inland lakes until 2009, when viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) was detected in Lake Superior. The Brule Hatchery is fed with water from a Lake Superior tributary, so today fish from the station can only be released in waters testing positive for VHS — Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.
The rearing station also played an important role in maintaining a high quality of fishing on the Brule River. Twice since the Brule Hatchery opened, it was used to rear steelhead for the Brule River. The last stocking of steelhead from the Brule Hatchery lasted from 1988 to 2001.
“It’s one-of-a-kind. It’s been unique for many years,” said Roger Anderson of Brule.
The Brule River has a reputation as a world-class fishing destination, Anderson said, and the hatchery has become an important tourist attraction in its own right.
“It’s always been, ‘We have to go to the hatchery of the River of Presidents,’” Anderson said.
Bob Banks drew applause when he called the DNR’s plan to cut $3 million from the fisheries program a short-term vision. He said such thinking has become too common in recent years.
“This is a symbol of what’s happening in Wisconsin,” Banks said.
Rather than make cuts, Banks suggested the DNR find ways to increase revenue and invest in the fisheries program.
Jim Waletzko of South Range had similar feelings and shared a story about a cousin-in-law from Kansas.
All his life, the Kansas man had read about the Brule River. He’d dreamed of fishing the legendary waters, so when Waletzko offered to take him out on the river, he jumped at the opportunity.
“He couldn’t get here quick enough,” Waletzko said.
It ended up being a hot day, and for the most part, the fish weren’t biting. Overall, Waletzko said it was a crummy day of fishing. But his cousin-in-law enjoyed the outing immensely.
The trip ended with a visit to the Brule Hatchery. Seeing the fish and learning about the heritage of the area proved to be the highlight of the day.
“He was ecstatic,” Waletzko said.
For two decades after that first visit, Waletzko’s cousin-in-law continued to fish the Brule River every year. He told friends about the prime fishing conditions and often brought them along on fishing trips.
“To not invest would be foolishness,” Waletzko said. He recommended raising the price of a trout stamp or introducing a new fee to raise the funds needed.
The DNR has no finalized plan to offset the $3 million shortfall in its fisheries budget, but a recently completed study of Wisconsin’s hatchery system may guide decisions.
The comprehensive study, conducted by HDR Engineering Inc., was presented to the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board on April 25, and Thursday’s meeting in Brule marked the first opportunity for the public to comment on the report.
The study concluded that the Wisconsin DNR is not capable of meeting its stocking goals without major renovation of existing facilities. It recommended $155 million in projects to upgrade Wisconsin’s fish production facilities.
For the Brule Hatchery, $10.5 million in improvements were recommended. The upgrades are designed to help the DNR meet its fish stocking goals, but the facility can continue to operate without them.
“This doesn’t say to close the Brule Hatchery,” Mike Staggs, DNR fisheries director. “What it says is rebuild the Brule Hatchery.”
The price tag of $10.5 million for the Brule rearing station puts it high on the list for improvement costs but not at the top. Six of the 23 facilities evaluated had higher total costs.
The bulk of the $10.5 million for the Brule Hatchery comes from suggested upgrades needed to meet the state’s stocking goals. Those costs make up $8.4 million of the total, covering things like the installation of a new water supply well, the construction of new buildings and renovations of the existing outdoor rearing raceways and ponds.
The other major cost to upgrade the Brule property would come from improved biosecurity features, totaling about $1.7 million.
The Brule rearing station is one of only two fish propagation facilities in the Lake Superior drainage area. The other is the Les Voigt State Fish Hatchery near Bayfield.
Recommended improvements for the Les Voigt station total $9.7 million. It ranked highest in total cost for biosecurity upgrades ($4.2 million) but was in the bottom half for improvements needed to meet statewide stocking goals ($2.8 million).
Another portion of the study ranked facilities based on existing conditions and the potential for future expansion and improvement.
Both the Brule and Les Voigt stations fell in the middle of the rankings. The facilities received identical scores on existing conditions, but the Les Voigt station gained a slight edge in the measurement of future potential. Overall, Les Voigt ranked fifth of the 11 coldwater stations evaluated, and the Brule rearing station ranked seventh.
The item that hurt the Brule Hatchery most was biosecurity.
Preventing the spread of disease is a major concern for the DNR, said fish culture section chief Al Kaas; and although VHS has never been found at the Brule station, the facility’s connection to Lake Superior makes the DNR wary.
“We hope it doesn’t happen, but we have to view that as possible and take appropriate action,” Kaas said. Many of Wisconsin’s hatcheries and rearing stations face similar biosecurity concerns, but the Brule station is unique because of its connection to a water source containing VHS.
The comments gathered at Thursday’s meeting will be considered by the DNR and used to make final decisions about potential facility closures.