Down a road past the parking lot for Drinking Horse Trailhead, past empty hatchery raceways, past a building full of offices and labs, there is a building full of fish.
One Thursday in June, barrels in different rooms held endangered dace from Wyoming, freshly hatched Arctic grayling and baby pallid sturgeon small enough to be grabbed by the handful.
In another room, full-sized fish finned around in big tanks — rainbow trout, cutthroat trout and 15-year-old pallid sturgeon the size of a human leg.
It’s part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bozeman Fish Technology Center, one of seven such centers in the country. The fish in that building — called the old hatchery building — are research subjects.
Like the 3-year-old shovelnose sturgeon, which was being held down in a tub by two technicians while a researcher gave it an ultrasound.
“This is an atresia study,” said Jeff Powell, the director of the center.
The study, led by biologist Molly Webb, is meant to help field biologists use ultrasound technology to detect the signs of atresia — when a fish resorbs its eggs instead of reproducing — among sturgeon in the wild, particularly the endangered pallid sturgeon.
It’s the sort of work that’s routine for the center, which handles research into a wide variety of different fish species. It’s been home to studies meant to help salmon in Alaska, cutthroat in Yellowstone Lake, purple sea urchins off the coast of California and much, much more.
That wasn’t always the purpose of this place, though. It was founded as a federal fish hatchery, a farm meant to help fill the rivers and streams of the West with fish.
This year marks the 130th anniversary of the hatchery’s creation. In that time, this place has evolved from fish farm to scientific clearinghouse, from a place that grows fish to one that helps fish growing elsewhere.
Powell, now in his second year as director, doesn’t see that evolution as a departure from its history, but a continuation of the work of the original hatchery managers, and everyone who’s worked there since.
“They really laid the foundation for our work moving forward,” Powell said.
An old house sits at the north end of the tech center property, Bridger Canyon Road humming behind it. Its paint is chipped, the porch sagging. It’s the oldest building there, and a symbol of the property’s beginnings. It was built as a home for the superintendent of the Bozeman National Fish Hatchery.
The hatchery was established by Congress in August 1892, spurred by a simple idea: federal officials wanted to put fish in waterways in the Rocky Mountain states, and all other hatcheries were just too far away.
A historical account of the hatchery’s first century is laid out in a spiral bound book published by the Gallatin Historical Society in 1992. According to the book, a mission to find a spot for a new hatchery landed on a farm near the notch between the Bridger Range and the Story Hills. The farm had two springs — one warm and one cold — and wasn’t far from Bozeman, meaning workers could go to town when needed and that shipping fish by rail wouldn’t be too challenging.
After the site was chosen, the government bought the land from the farmers and began working to turn it into a hatchery. In 1897, Dr. James A. Henshall, the first superintendent of the hatchery, moved into the old house. A month later, the hatchery received its first shipment — 25,000 brook trout eggs from Colorado. Its first year of production was underway.
Raising fish in 1897 wasn’t easy. Bad weather and fungal outbreaks in the eggs occasionally caused problems, according to the historical society book. Workers had to go to Bozeman most days with a horse-drawn wagon on rough roads to gather supplies. The trips usually required a stop at a butcher shop to pick up beef liver to feed the fish. The hatchery had no way to keep the liver fresh, so there were a lot of trips to the butcher.
Still, the hatchery figured out how to raise fish. The next year, according to the book, it was shipping fish on rail cars to Dillon, Victor and Townsend, among other places. Soon it was sending its product out of state, too. Henshall boasted to newspapers of the hatchery’s output. In a 1902 article in the Billings Gazette, he told of sending 1 million grayling eggs as far east as New Hampshire.
He also hosted editors at the property, more than willing to show it off. A 1901 article in the Butte Inter Mountain described him as a “charming host,” and praised the hatchery as a grand success.
“The work of the fish hatchery is filling the streams of the west with splendid fish. In the pleasant spot near Bozeman the spawn come to life and, growing into fish large and old enough to travel, are sent out to distant parts of the country to make their way in the watery world to which they are consigned,” the newspaper wrote. “Its (sic) a great institution, this Bozeman fish hatchery and one that is reflecting the wise plans the government has for providing streams of the west with fish.”
Henshall left in 1909, moving to a new job in Mississippi, but the hatchery carried on, raising fish and sending them around the country. But in the 1960s, its focus began to shift toward scientific inquiry.
To outsiders, the most tangible change may have come in the form of a new name — the Bozeman Fish Cultural Development Center, which stuck until 1983, when the current name was bestowed upon the center.
To those who worked at the center, the shift meant more time spent producing research meant to help hatchery operators improve their operations. According to the historical society book, officials saw the general mission as advancing “fish rearing as a husbandry science.”
Pat Dwyer began working at the center in the 1970s, sticking around until 2001. Early on, he sampled fish at hatcheries to look at disease issues, and assisted with studies that looked at how to best raise trout.
He also worked on studies that had nothing to do with hatcheries. In one instance, he worked on a project meant to find the best method of electrofishing — the practice of stunning fish with an electric charge so they can be netted. Dwyer said the charge can be tough on fish, and that ”they don’t always recover as quickly as we think they do.” The project tested various currents and provided state and federal officials with information on which was the least harmful.
It also raised Arctic grayling that were stocked around Montana. Grayling were one of the fish raised by Henshall early on, with eggs hauled over from the Centennial Valley, but the species had continued declining in its original range.
Throughout the 1990s, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks stocked grayling in a bunch of different rivers to see if they would take.
Pat Byorth, who now works for Trout Unlimited and sits on the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, was a grayling biologist for FWP at the time. Some of the stocking efforts were for naught, and really were “research for research’s sake,” Byorth said, but others worked.
One of the last grayling projects he worked on was in the upper Ruby River watershed, southwest of Ennis. That population got established and is still thriving.
Successes like that depended on the technology center, Byorth said, because it was the “major producer” of grayling that were stocked around the state.
“For me, as a grayling guy, the fish technology center deserves a ton of credit for keeping grayling around,” Byorth said.
Raising fish to be stocked in the wild is about the only thing the center doesn’t do anymore. There is still an intact set of raceways, still holding water in case they need them for a project, but Powell said the stocking program ended about 20 years ago.
He said it was a matter of safety. Because they study diseases and often bring in species from far away, they can’t risk anything unnatural being transported somewhere else. They’re careful about that, but stocking posed just enough of a risk that the program needed to end.
That’s certainly not what the people behind the Bozeman National Fish Hatchery envisioned in 1892, but time changes everything, and everything evolves.
Now the scope of the science coming out of the center is vast. There are studies of physiology and histology, some blood work.
Fish nutrition is a big one. There’s a whole building dedicated to developing diets for all kinds of fish, information that will be sent to working hatcheries. Sometimes the lab makes food for bugs. In one humid room in that building, there are bins holding cockroaches — part of a study meant to help zoos.
The lab also developed a special kind of pellet for Yellowstone National Park, one that would decompose and suffocate lake trout eggs in Yellowstone Lake.
In front of the nutrition lab is a big, empty cement pool. On one side is a flume, a specialized swim chamber scientists use to test a fish’s ability to get over or around different obstacles, part of fish passage studies. The work helps biologists figure out how to keep non-native fish out of habitat reserved for native species. A recent study was aimed at keeping northern pike out of salmon habitat in Alaska.
It’s one of countless examples of the center’s work helping fish facing a threat — just like the pellets produced for Yellowstone Lake, and just like Molly Webb’s atresia study with the sturgeon.
“The role of the tech center is to provide technology transfer to both managers that are working for conservation and restoration of threatened and endangered species,” Webb said. She added that it’s also working to “improve the health and success of animals that are released from a hatchery into the wild.”
The center also has a close tie to Montana State University’s fisheries program. Students get a chance to work on projects there — the Yellowstone Lake project, for example, was led by an MSU graduate student.
“We wouldn’t be the fisheries program we are without them being here in town,” said Al Zale, an MSU professor and leader of the Montana Cooperative Fishery Research Unit.
That MSU connection is how Powell got his start, too. He volunteered at the center when he was in college, fixing feeders for small fish. After graduating, he found work with the USFWS and moved around a bit, to South Dakota and New Mexico and back to South Dakota before returning to Bozeman.
He knows the center’s history, and he has to pinch himself when he thinks about the spot he holds in it.
“I feel more honored than anything to be associated with this program because of its historical legacy and how we move things into the future,” Powell said.