27 August 2007

Big Hole River Grayling Quest II

Saturday and the last weekend of August, I set out as cicerone on another grayling quest. Jeff Hull (http://www.umt.edu/Journalism/about_the_jschool/Faculty_pages/hull.html) is writing an article about Big Hole River grayling for Audubon Magazine, and he wanted to be one with the grayling. Well, as "one" as you can get: he wanted to snorkel with them. I'm glad he's researching this article now, since in the near future there might be no grayling left, in which case our being will be slightly less whole, less "one," than it is today.

One cannot think of grayling without thinking about the dewatering/irrigation/agricultural practices that drive their extinction. And so our first stop was at the Maidenrock "big ditch" diversion. Yep, just as Al Lefor (Great Divide Outfitters, http://www.bigholetrout.com/) had suggested, the big ditch was running full bore. As you look at this photo, realize that the big flow of water separated into two "ditches" in the lower half of the photo is the irrigation diversion:

It's even more impressive from the air. Again, the diverted water for irrigating hay is in the lower half of the photo. The "bypass" flow -- the water allowed to go downstream for fish -- is in the upper half. It has to squeeze past that huge gravel bar diversion dam built by ranchers to capture as much flow as possible:

Diversions running full bore, like this one, belie a recent Montana Standard newspaper article in which a Big Hole Watershed Committee spokesperson gave the impression that ranchers just weren't using any water. It's the bad old "drought" that caused the river to be closed to anglers. Well, the "drought" is getting a lot of help from ranchers! Here's Wise River, a major tributary of the Big Hole River, and a stream that once had many, many grayling. The lower end is almost totally dewatered. We won't mention that this dewatering is caused by a member of the Watershed Committee:

Hey, look here, I found some water! It's all being sprayed out onto hay meadows:

Why are Big Hole River grayling practically extinct? Take a look at this photo of the river, it's of a reach fisheries biologists call "the dead zone." The reach is between Anaconda Sportsmen's Park and Wisdom, and it should function as a critical connective route for the highly migratory grayling to travel between the big pools of the lower river and the spawning habitat of the upper river. No grayling would hazard passage through warm, nutrient rich (check out those algae mats), slack water:
Jeff did find a precious few grayling (sorry, David Quammen, for me stealing that turn of phrase). They were in La Marche Creek, a cold water refugium where grayling go to escape the dead zone. There are no irrigation diversions from La Marche, and so flow is good. A recent FWP restoration project corrected years of overgrazing damage that had beaten down the banks, making the lower creek (near where it enters the Big Hole River) warm and wide and shallow:

Here's Jeff right in among 'em, as we elk hunters say. A group of Montana State University students has been counting these fish, and the flagging tape they left on the bushes was a big help in knowing exactly where they were. There were easily 20 grayling in this single pool. We found several other pools with fewer fish. Hmmm... perhaps 10% or more of the entire adult population might be holed up in this tiny creek. Nothing like concentrating the few remaining fish for predators or some statistical extinction event:

"Jewel of the River," yes. Jeff's excited description of the beauty of Big Hole River grayling came gurgling up as he blew the words out through his snorkel. The iridiscent sheen of their flanks, the pearly luster of the spots on their dorsal fin as they flared it to impress nearby fish and snorkelers. At first I thought it was the 55 deg F water sending him into cardiac arrest, but no, nature's elegance can have a similar effect on one who makes an effort to find it.

After a burger with Jeff at Fetty's Cafe, it was time for me to head back to Butte. Early afternoon, and the heat and wind began whipping up the Pettingill (illiterates say "Pattengail"-- a misspelling of the Wild Man of Wise River's name) fire:

Within minutes, it was really cooking: While I hope no homes or property are destroyed by the fire, it is the best thing in the world for the deadfall-choked, lodgepole pine, habitat of the Pioneers. Within about 3 years, the elk population will double in that area.

I'm glad Jeff found his grayling, and I look forward to his article. In the meantime, though, I wish that groups such as the Big Hole Watershed Committee were working a little harder (and with more results) in saving our last few jewels of the river.

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