‘They’re playing politics with their volunteers’

Local clubs upset after fish program cut, DNR cites funding issues

            Joe Bragger showed his spring-fed trout pond to Elk Rod and Gun Club members Mike Blaha and Doug Yapp as well as Waumandee Rod and Gun Club President Joe Sendelbach last Friday. Trout have been raised in the pond since around World War II, but the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources recently eliminated the co-op trout rearing program that supplied the fish. (Times photograph by Andrew Dannehy)

            The brook trout spawning area located along County Road X near the Trempealeau/Buffalo County line is just one location that won’t be restocked next spring after the state Department of Natural Resources cut the co-op trout rearing program recently.     (Times photograph by Andrew Dannehy)

How does a program that has run successfully for about 75 years suddenly end? 

It depends on who you ask. In an interview with the Times, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources official said the agency can no longer afford to run the co-op trout rearing program. However, several people involved in local conservation clubs told the Times they believe it’s a matter of politics. 

The state DNR trout rearing co-op program had been in place since at least 1950. In June and July, the DNR typically provides two-inch trout to clubs, which then raise them and release them into area streams the following fall and spring. However, the DNR board decided not to supply the fish in 2024 and may not do so again.

“We are managing a deficit in the fish and wildlife account and these activities have a cost,” Dave Giehtbrock, fish culture section leader for the state DNR, said. “This is one of the items we have decided to forgo this year to manage the budget.”

That decision means, the expected 34,600 wild brook trout, 13,000 domestic brown trout and 2,400 domestic rainbow trout won’t be released into area streams next spring. Area conservation groups don’t buy the reasoning and are concerned that the decision will hurt fishing in the area.

“Once they cut a quota, you never get it back,” Mike Blaha, president of the Elk Rod and Gun Club, said. “I think what we’re doing here is pretty important to the community. We have people coming from all over the state and other states to fish around here.”

Joe Sendelbach, president of the Waumandee Rod and Gun Club, said a DNR official inspected the club’s pond on June 19, only to be told the next morning that the fish weren’t coming. He was expecting 10,800 fish to be delivered — some on June 24, the rest on July 2. 

“I’m mad as hell,” Sendelbach said. “The DNR hatched these fish in November, if there was a budget problem, they knew about it then. If it was that big of a deal they wouldn’t have hatched the fish. I think it’s more of a management problem than a budget problem.”

Giehtbrock said there was a “very recent” 40 percent increase in food costs because of a plant closure in Utah. 

The Waumandee club has been operating its pond since 1969. It stocks streams in Trempealeau and Buffalo counties working with five other clubs, including the Arcadia Sportsman’s Club. 

Sendelbach said he figured 90 percent of the DNR’s expense had already been accounted for, the clubs handled most of the costs once the fish were delivered. Though, he said he heard of a budget battle in Madison. “I think we kind of got played as a pawn,” he said.

Sendelbach said the club had already purchased about $1,400 worth of food for the fish, but that could go to waste. While he was told the DNR may buy the feed from the club, that would require a lot of paperwork and it still wouldn’t be guaranteed that the state agency would purchase it. 

Joe Bragger said a trout pond has been on his family farm in the Independence area since around World War II and has never had an issue getting fish. 

“Even during COVID we had fish here,” Bragger said. “Now that’s all going at risk because they’re going to play politics at the DNR.”

Bragger said there are typically 4,400 brown trout raised in his pond. While the Elk Rod and Gun Club pays about $600 to help maintain the pond, Bragger said unpaid manhours go into the operation, including the work the club has done restoring area streams. 

“This is a terribly poor way to go about it,” Bragger said. “They’re playing politics with their volunteers. Not a great idea.”

DNR officials have projected a $15.5 million deficit in the fish and wildlife account by 2026. That account received a $25 million transfer from the forestry account in the state budget approved in 2023.

Giehtbrock said the club hasn’t had a fishing license fee increase in 18 years. 

“As you well know, prices have gone up for everything in the last 18 years, including 200 percent for our fish food,” he said. 

The last significant push for a license increase came in 2017 when the legislature voted the measure down, even though DNR officials warned that budget concerns were ahead. 

“During the (Gov. Scott Walker) administration, they said we don’t need a fee increase,” Giehtbrock said. 

While the cost for a trout stamp has increased, Giehtbrock said that money is reserved for habitat management and can’t go toward the rearing program. 

Giehtbrock said he hopes the program returns next year, but that would require an increase in the department’s budget. 

“If our fiscal situation does not change, we’re going to continue to have to make hard decisions about what fishery management activities we do,” Giehtbrock said. “Going forward, we have not made any final decisions on (the program).” 

Giehtbrock encouraged residents to contact their legislators, ask them to increase the license fees and have more money go into the fish and wildlife account. 

“They’re the ones who hold the purse strings,” Giehtbrock said. 

Giehtbrock didn’t think a one-year break in the program would have a significant effect on local fishing. 

“It’s been extremely successful and one of the things people have to realize is that between habitat improvement and water quality improvement and some of the stocking we’ve been doing, we have increased the fishing tremendously over the years.”

He said there may be a noticeable decline in some trout ponds, but most streams have trout reproducing naturally so people aren’t as likely to notice the change. 

“Mother nature is better at making fish than my staff,” Giehtbrock said. 

Giehtbrock said he appreciates the response from local conservation clubs, noting he grew up fishing in Chatfield, Minn. 

“I’m pretty passionate about this,” he said. “All of these things are important to me as well from a cultural standpoint and I get it, but when I have budget issues, I have to deal… This maybe will give us some attention in this particular area.” 

Bragger wishes the DNR would be willing to work with local clubs to solve the problem. He said he already found someone willing to transport the fish from Madison. 

“Let’s find a different way to handle this current situation,” Bragger said. “At the end of the day, let’s not ruin the program over it. Get the fish out.” 

Giehtbrock said he hopes the DNR and the clubs can continue working together. 

“We value the relationship we have with the clubs, we want to continue our relationship for sure,” Giehtbrock said. 

Special Sections

Comment Here