27 March 2008

Montana Arctic Grayling Recovery Program: Annual Meeting

On Tuesday, 18 March 2008, I squeezed into into a room full of folks at the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks headquarters in Bozeman for the annual meeting of the Grayling Restoration Workgroup. [For three substantial highlights of this meeting, scroll down to the bold headings below.]

Also know as the "annual grayling meeting and sandwich eating club," the recovery program began in 1987 as a response to the decline of fluvial Arctic grayling in the Big Hole River. Though technically a 501(c)3 organization coordinated by Buddy Drake, the group serves to coordinate the efforts of Montana FWP and the US Fish & Wildlife Service and to communicate these efforts to the wider environmental community.

I've been attending the annual meeting off and on since the late 1990s. For many years, it seemed that the agency biologists got together and did a lot of hand-wringing, but nothing much ever came out of it. Yes, there were helter-skelter activities such as trying to reintroduce hatchery grayling into degraded, warm, and dewatered rivers such as the Beaverhead and Jefferson--but most of the agency administrators seemed to be there just for the free sandwiches. It took until 2002 for the group to even begin to address degraded habitat in the upper Big Hole--something that everyone knew was a problem at least by the early 1990s.

Things have changed, somewhat. The meeting consists of a lot more presentations (22 in 8 hours!) and a lot less discussion. While it is good that a broader range of folks -- presenters included representatives from The Nature Conservancy and NRCS -- make presentations (it used to be just agency biologists), letting the agenda get swamped by too many low-content presentations means that substantial discussion cannot occur. For example, various National Park Service folks made three interminable presentations about a potential grayling restoration project in Yellowstone; these could easily have been condensed into a single 10 minute presentation. Still, I can understand why NPS was given such a broad slot, since until now the Park has been opposed to native fish restoration.

For the most part, the meeting was full of bad news: grayling continue to decline in the Big Hole River watershed. Although a lot of work is going into the Conservation Candidate Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs), no postive population response is predicted until years 2011-2012. With upper river flows at or above minimal targets needed for graylng sustainability just 15% or so of the time in summer and fall, I wouldn't be too optimistic about grayling populations three or four years from now.

There were three presentations of special interest:

One: Habitat Restoration Does Not Help Fish When There is No Water in the Restored Stream
Yep, we're talking about the Big Hole Watershed Committee's highly touted "Rock Creek Reconnection Project." The WC invested about $100,000 on stream restoration, willow planting, and riparian fencing (not to mention overhead and indirects)--with much of the funding coming from the Orvis Company and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. How sad, to see a photograph of a dry streambed for this "investment." This is a problem that critics of the WC have pointed out time and time again: unless and until the committee is able to assure minimal instream flows, grayling will continue to decline. Solution: quit pretending ranchers are going to voluntarily give up enough water, and either go after it legally (Public Trust Doctrine) or start leasing it.

Two: There is a Small but Hopeful Sign that Grayling are Colonizing the Upper Ruby River Watershed
The use of Remote Site Incubators to hatch grayling eggs on-site in the Upper Ruby seems to be panning out. Last year, a number of 2+ year old Arctic grayling turned up in stream and angler creel surveys. The big test: these fish should spawn this spring. Note that the eggs came from Big Hole grayling broodstock that are held in the Axoltl Lakes and Ted Turner rearing ponds, so if there has not been too much genetic drift or bottlenecking, then this could be a healthy future population.

Three: The US Fish & Wildlife Decision Not to List Big Hole Grayling was Stupid and Wrong
Yeah, we all knew this was true. But just the same, it feels good to be vindicated once in awhile. Soon-to-be published genetic data indicates that Big Hole River grayling are genetically distinct from fluvial populations in Canada and lake dwelling/adfluvial populations in Montana. These results clearly contravene the recent US FWS service decision to revoke Distinct Population Segment status for Big Hole grayling.

Well, the sandwiches were tasty.

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