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Brule Hatchery may be on list to close

In late January, Dennis Smet began to hear nervous whispers in Brule. The word about town was the fish rearing station -- known locally as the Brule Hatchery -- was slated to be closed.

Smet, chairman of the Brule Town Board, wasn't sure what to think.

"We sure would hate to lose that," Smet said. "It's a big tourist attraction. It's 85 years old."

The Brule Town Board discussed the fate of the Brule rearing station at a Feb. 14 meeting and spoke with Rep. Nick Milroy about what he'd learned on the matter.

Milroy has been in talks with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources since Smet first contacted him about the possible closing of the hatchery.

"Essentially what is going on is obviously there's real tight budgets in state government, choices have to be made," Milroy said. "The party in control right now determines how much money the state is going to spend, and based on the last budget they have to look at making some pretty major cuts to all the different state agencies.

"It's my understanding that the Fisheries Management Board put together a proposal on how they wanted to spend their money and where they wanted to cut. And the Brule propagation station was on the list of something that they are considering closing."

The list of cost-saving measures must still be reviewed by another committee before recommendations are sent to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp.

"The final decisions will be made in consultation between the Secretary's office and the Governor's office," Milroy said.

The Brule rearing station serves as a major tourist attraction for the small town of Brule. Generations of schoolchildren have toured the facilities, and local businesses rely upon the extra tourism the site generates.

The Brule Hatchery also played a key role in rehabilitating the steelhead population of the Brule River. Steelhead were stocked in the river from the late 1980s until 2001, and steelhead fishing is now a big draw for the Brule River.

"I fish the river almost every day in the fall, and last fall I'd go around to the parking lots and seven out of every 10 cars had license plates that were out-of-state," Smet said. "They're buying fishing licenses and trout stamps and fishing solely on the Brule."

Economically, Smet said, it is important for the DNR to maintain the high quality of fishing on the Brule River. The steelhead population is of particular concern for Smet.

"It could take a sharp drop, and if that happens and they have to start raising hatchery steelhead again, the best place to do that is right here," Smet said.

Currently, the Brule rearing station is raising brown trout that will be released into Lake Superior.

Dave Schulz, superintendent of the Brule River State Forest, said he doesn't know much about the potential closing for the Brule rearing station. Like many other Brule residents, he's heard mostly rumors.

"I think it's more of a business situation," Schulz said. "With the current regulations for one, with VHS (viral hemorrhagic septicemia), all those fish that are raised here aren't going local."

Because the Brule rearing station is not a contained system, fish raised there can only be released in water where VHS has been detected -- primarily Lake Superior or Lake Michigan. All inland lakes are off limits.

"If push comes to shove, we're really going to have to raise our voices and make sure that our concerns are at least heard before they make any final decisions," Milroy said. "Closing something like a fish hatchery in a small area is never a popular thing. I can't assure you that the DNR's decision is going to be to keep it, but I think the best outcome would be for the DNR to come to Brule, hear people's concerns and find a compromise.

"I'm really hopeful, and I'm assuming that they won't make any decision quickly that would impact the hatchery this year or next year."

Smet was also optimistic after his conversation with Mike Staggs, bureau director of fisheries management.

"We talked for about half an hour, and he said that they are ordering fish now for their hatcheries for the spring," Smet said. "I said, 'Are you ordering them for Brule?" And he was kind of reluctant, but he said, 'I think we will.' So it's not like they want to shut it down right away."

The Wisconsin DNR did not respond to numerous requests for comment.