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Can Montana’s Arctic grayling hang on?

In three months, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide whether to list Montana’s Arctic grayling as a threatened or endangered species

For 20 years, landowners and state and federal fisheries personnel have worked together in Montana’s Big Hole Valley to try to help preserve a fragile population of a beautiful sail-finned trout – the Arctic grayling.

In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to publish its findings on whether this southernmost population of the species is worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“There is a real fear of the unknown” among the landowners, said Emma Cayer, grayling habitat biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Dillon.

Cayer has been working with the ranchers duirng the past 10 years on a variety of projects in the southwestern Montana region – everything from installing solar-run water troughs to keep cattle away from streams, to concrete irrigation headgates to more effectively manage flood irrigation flows. She said the work is paying off.

“The threat of listing has spawned this amazing conservation movement,” she said. “It has made it better for every critter that uses wild areas. It may sound cheesy, but grayling have been a catalyst for all of these amazing changes.”

The question is: Have all of the efforts been enough to prevent listing the species?

“A couple of more months and we won’t be wondering anymore,” Cayer said.

Tortured course

George Wuerthner was among the first to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list Montana’s upper Missouri River basin Arctic grayling population as threatened or endangered. That was in 1991, 23 years ago in October. Contacted last week, he said even if the agency does find in his favor, it could be too little too late.

Since Wuerthner and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation first sued the agency, the fish has weaved a course through the courts as chaotic as any stream in spring runoff.

In 1994, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that the Arctic grayling in Montana was worthy of being listed but precluded because of other “higher priority listing actions.”

In 2003, the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project filed a complaint against the USFWS for ignoring its request for an emergency listing. In 2007, in what some argued was a politically motivated decision by the Bush administration, the USFWS said Montana’s Arctic grayling was not a “listable entity under the ESA, and as a result, listing was not warranted.”

On the heels of that finding, another complaint was filed against the USFWS. In 2009, with the Obama administration set to move into the White House, the agency agreed to conduct a status review of the fish. In 2010, the agency agreed – again –

that the Arctic grayling was in need of listing but precluded because of other priorities.

Then late last year, the USFWS said it would conduct another status review of Montana’s Arctic grayling and, by the end of September, will either publish a proposed rule to protect the Arctic grayling under the ESA, or withdraw the fish from consideration.

Possible effects

No matter what the ruling, Montana’s Arctic grayling has a tenuous toehold on Earth.

“What happens when you run into all of these delays is you get to the point where any major change like a drought could wipe them out,” said Wuerthner, who is now the Oregon director of the Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group.

“Even if they are listed at this point, it may take a huge effort to bring the fish back,” he added.

“The real factor that’s hurting them is low water flows, and I don’t know how listing under the Endangered Species Act would affect water flows … maybe minimum flows could be enacted,” he speculated.

It could also force agencies like the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management to restrict grazing on federal lands or to fence off riparian areas where grazing is allowed.

“One thing a listing does is it can force the government to try to manage with the listed species in mind,” Wuerthner said.

Top brass visits

This spring, Montana’s Arctic grayling had a visit from Noreen Walsh, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She toured the Centennial Valley, where efforts to restore Montana’s only native population of lake-dwelling Arctic grayling are being undertaken, as well as the Big Hole Valley’s river-dwelling grayling.

It will be up to Walsh to review her Montana staff’s recommendation on whether to list grayling and then pass it on to the agency’s director, Daniel Ashe.

She said recently that she made the trip to Montana to see how all the federal and state work was benefitting the fish.

“Habitat, I do think, is the biggest issue for the Arctic grayling,” she said. “That’s part of what I learned firsthand.”

She also said that, “Keeping the water cool enough is one of the most important things we can do to keep the fish on the landscape.”

During her visit, Walsh spoke with Harold Peterson. The 78-year-old rancher lives near the headwaters of the Big Hole River and is one of the founders of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, which has worked with federal and state officials to conserve the fish. Peterson was born and raised in the valley. His grandfather homesteaded in the area in 1884.

“We’ve kept them alive this long, for 100 years or more, so we’re not doing everything wrong,” he said. “But we’re still working on it.”

Peterson said the threat that Arctic grayling could be listed is one reason ranchers have worked so hard with FWP, and he praised the state agency’s staff for their efforts. Yet he remains suspicious of federal officials.

“I don’t see where listing (grayling) is going to do any good,” he said. “If the feds take a look at what we’ve done for them, I can’t see how they can say we haven’t done enough.”

Still, he said the ranchers are always looking for something more to do.

Still upbeat

Despite all of the challenges, Cayer said she’s optimistic about the river-dwelling Arctic graylings’ future.

“We’re seeing an upward trend in age 1 and older fish,” she said. “They’re increasing their distribution in the river and tributaries. Last year we saw the highest number of effective breeders since the 1980s.”

Also, river flow targets that were being met only 50 percent of the time during irrigation season – April to October – in the Big Hole Valley are now being hit about 80 percent of the time. On the down side, only 31 landowners with about 160,000 acres are enrolled in a cooperative conservation agreement. That’s down from 39 landowners owning 210,000 acres in 2005.

Likewise, FWP fisheries biologist Matt Jaeger, of Dillon, said he’s seeing a positive trend for lake-dwelling grayling in the Centennial Valley. From having grayling in only two spawning streams in the 1990s, habitat work has increased that to seven out of 13 historic spawning tributaries. Stream channels that were once dewatered have been restored and excessive grazing that affected runoff has been lessened.

“Everything is trending upward now because of some of the habitat work that’s being done,” Jaeger said.

Yet challenges remain. Jaeger said work on Upper Red Rock Lake will be difficult because it’s in a wilderness area. Attempts to re-establish spawning runs to Elk Springs Creek, which flows into the shallow and warm waters of Swan Lake, have failed. It’s possible the young fish that drift into the lake are not finding their way out into Upper Red Rock Lake and are dying, Jaeger said. Another study being conducted is evaluating whether the grayling will respond to the removal of nonnative westslope cutthroat trout, which likely eat small grayling and may compete for habitat.

The ability of the Arctic grayling to hang on impresses Jaeger, who said they are a tough, gritty fish.

“They went through more by 1920 than they ever will again,” he said.

That’s when drought hit, drying up streams after homesteaders had already dewatered much of the fish’s ecosystem above the Great Falls of the Missouri River by diverting water for irrigation and livestock.

Ancient species

It seems hard to believe that after living so long, the fish were nearly wiped out in one human generation. Old records say homesteaders once scooped buckets of the fish from spawning tributaries.

Grayling have faced challenges before, just not human-made ones. It’s estimated that Arctic grayling have lived in the Missouri River basin for at least 80,000 years and the upper Missouri for the last 10,000 years.

Scientists have calculated that the Arctic grayling migrated to North America much like mammals: over the Beringia land bridge from Asia, possibly 3 million years ago. DNA analysis has shown the fish to be most closely related to Arctic grayling that range from the North Slope of Alaska, to the lower Mackenzie River and eastern Saskatchewan. Some time after migrating to North America, Montana’s Arctic grayling were cut off from their ancestors, likely by huge, thick ice sheets that spread across much of what is now Canada.

Because the upper Missouri River Arctic grayling have evolved in a warmer climate than their northern cousins, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has noted that the fish may be important for restocking northern populations of grayling if a warmer climate reduces their population. That’s another reason to preserve the species, but they face plenty of challenges at home.

Right now, Arctic grayling occupy only 4 to 5 percent of their historic range in the Missouri River. Native populations that once swam in the Smith, Sun, Jefferson, Beaverhead, Gallatin and mainstem Missouri rivers – estimated at about 1,250 miles of stream – are considered wiped out.

Last shot

Although such a dark recent history may be depressing, Montana biologists Jaeger and Cayer see reasons to hope Arctic grayling are doing better. Cayer said she’s receiving reports of grayling farther downstream on the Big Hole River than ever before. Upstream, fish ladders have provided the fish access to another 67 miles of the river and tributaries. Anglers are catching more of the fish, although regulations require them to be released.

“Some people are confident that what we’ve done is enough,” Cayer said. “And there are some who say it’s never enough.”

She feels like there’s still a lot of work to be done, even though so much has already been accomplished.

“If the climate changes, they might not be around here forever,” Cayer said. “But we’re at least giving them a shot.”