25 April 2007

Who Killed Big Hole Grayling? A not-so-mysterious murder.

Presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton once explained that "It takes a village" to raise a child.

It also takes a village, it seems, to extirpate a once-common species such as the Montana fluvial grayling—a fish that Alberta biologist Jim O'Neil calls "The Jewel of the River."

Most recently, the extinction of Big Hole River grayling – the only remnant of a fish once found throughout the Missouri River watershed above Great Falls, Montana – has been hastened by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. The very agency that is supposed to uphold the Endangered Species Act has instead become a political tool of the anti-environmental Bush administration. How sad this is for the sincere, hard-working, and dedicated biologists who have clung to their jobs within that agency. History will look harshly upon Bush and his appointees such as Julie MacDonald for their environmental crimes.

Another huge recent influence on the decline of Big Hole River grayling: the chronic dewatering of the upper Big Hole River by ranchers. Documented instances of severe dewatering extend back many, many years. E.g. in 1988, no water at all was left in the riverbed. This chronic dewatering, which used to be mainly a summer problem, has in recent years become common during the spring. Warmer weather and changing agricultural practices have prompted ranchers to begin flood irrigation earlier and earlier. This is especially tragic for Big Hole River grayling, since they spawn in late April or early May and the fry are very vulnerable and need lots of “edge cover” in a bank-full river in order to survive. So we will list ranchers among the guilty.

The Big Hole Watershed Committee formed in 1995 in response to threats to list grayling as an endangered species. The group has been aware of the chronic dewatering since its inception. Yet over this time, Big Hole River grayling continued to decline. This indicates that steps taken by the committee, while perhaps admirable, have simply not been enough to promote grayling recovery. Thus the Big Hole Watershed Committee too must be listed among those who have killed off the grayling.

Also complicit in this “too little, too late” negligence: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. My friend Wayne Hadley, a PhD fisheries biologist and retired FWP employee, tells me the agency had documented the serious decline of grayling by the 1970s. Like the US Fish & Wildlife Service biologists, it must have been hard for FWP employees to document the decline of grayling populations and the damage to grayling habitat year-after-year-after-year while their agency ignored the need to commit needed resources to restore habitat and maintain flows. Yes, Montana FWP is a guilty accomplice in the murder of grayling.

What became of the river grayling that were so abundant and widespread in the upper Missouri River watershed visited by Lewis & Clark? In the early years of white settlement, native species such as Arctic grayling were virtually wiped out. For example, the Fish Trap public fishing access site on the Big Hole River is aptly named for a large weir constructed in the 1860s and operated until about 1890. Market fishermen trapped grayling and other native fish by the thousands, packed them with salt in barrels, and shipped them by the wagonload to mining camps such as Butte and Bannock. Commerical fishermen also worked the rivers with hook and line, and a record two-day catch of grayling by one meat fisherman totaled 600 pounds. Therefore, the miners, homesteaders, and other settlers of early Montana are party to the murder of grayling.

By 1880, there weren’t many fish of any kind left in the upper Missouri. At about the same time, sport fishing emerged as a popular social activity, and these anglers demanded something to catch. In lieu of effective conservation efforts to protect native fish, the factory production of replacements was in order. This began in Montana with a federal fish hatchery built in Bozeman in 1896. For the next 80 years, exotic fish from this and other hatcheries were stocked in the rivers of Montana. Soon, rainbow trout from California, brook trout form the eastern states, and brown trout from Europe became established as wild populations in the Big Hole and other rivers. As these exotic species took hold, they largely prevented the recovery of native species such as fluvial Arctic grayling. Sad but true: we need to add sport anglers and fisheries managers to our list of accessories to the murder of grayling.

At what point did it become too late to recover our native heritage—the Big Hole River grayling? Certainly in 1982, when environmental writer David Quammen published his landmark essay, “Jeremy Bentham, the Pieta, and a Precious Few Grayling,” there was time. Quammen described FWP biologist George Liknes’ graduate study of Big Hole River grayling. On the heels of a 1977 drought, Liknes pointed out that grayling were in big trouble. Though people listened, no one took significant steps to recover the fish.

In 1982, the US Fish & Wildlife Service announced that “proposing to list the species as Endangered or Threatened was possibly appropriate.” But the agency did nothing. Only after 1991, when the Biodiversity Legal Foundation (now known as the Center for Biological Diversity – see http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/ – filed a petition requesting an endangered species listing, did the agency begin to take action. Still, this action was always impeded by the turf-jealously of Montana FWP and more recently by the anti-environmental politics of the Bush administration. Much of this obfuscation and delay was channeled through the half-hearted and foot-dragging work of the Big Hole Watershed Committee.

And so, to paraphrase W.H. Auden’s poem commemorating the Irish poet and angler William Butler Yeats,

Earth receive an honored guest,
Grayling fish are laid to rest.
Let the river vessel lie,
Emptied of its jewelry.

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