07 October 2009

Feds Must Reconsider Status of Big Hole River Grayling

[This post was adapted from a guest opinion for the Montana Standard newspaper, "Grayling may gain protection after all," 03.Oct.09]

To settle a legal challenge, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has agreed to consider the Montana fluvial Arctic grayling – a.k.a. the Big Hole River grayling – for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). [settlement document here]

Montana FWP grayling photo:

Nearly two years ago, I joined the Center for Biological Diversity, the Federation of Fly Fishers, Western Watersheds Projects, and a few other individuals in this lawsuit challenging the Bush administration’s finding that Big Hole River grayling were “insignificant.” The finding was contrary to the agency’s own scientists, a peer-review by professional fisheries biologists, and the law. Bush appointee Julie MacDonald resigned after a federal investigation found she had “bullied agency scientists to change their conclusions and improperly released internal documents to industry lobbyists and attorneys.”

In a separate court settlement, the Obama administration agreed to reconsider dozens of other Endangered Species decisions made by the Bush administration.

The wrangling over Big Hole River grayling goes back to 1982, when FWS first agreed that the fish might be endangered. Since that time, listing has been delayed by one excuse after another, including “we don’t have enough information” and “we have other, higher priorities.” Meanwhile, grayling slipped ever closer to extinction.

There is now abundant evidence that the Big Hole River grayling is on the brink of extinction and merits ESA listing. The population has declined by more than half since 1990. A recent genetics study demonstrates that Big Hole River grayling are truly a unique fish—different from grayling found in lakes or in Alaska and Canada. The study, by FWS biologists Doug Peterson and William Arden, concludes that “Big Hole River [grayling] should be a high priority for protection and restoration.”

Anglers are often confused by the difference between river and lake grayling. Though they look alike, lake grayling cannot survive in a river. Something happens when grayling adapt to lake conditions: a genetic switch is flipped and the fish do not hold their position in flowing water. Lake grayling are also in trouble, with populations in Red Rock Lakes nearly extinct. It is possible that the agency will list all grayling in Montana as an endangered species.

How sad that a fish once common throughout the Missouri River watershed above Great Falls is now nearly gone from the face of the earth. Our power to build dams and irrigate crops has been very great, but our will to allow native life to flourish has been very weak.

Cattle stand in an irrigated pasture while the river is dewatered, 21.June.2007:

While I applaud state and federal efforts to restore river grayling habitat, it has been a matter of "Too Little, Too Late." For example, the small Steele Creek (named for homesteader Mike Steele) restoration project is a "showcase" restoration project. In 2008, 13.5 grayling per mile (GPM) were found in Steele Creek. But in 2007 there were 23.0 GPM and in 2006 36.1 GPM. In 2003, before restoration even began, there were 27.4 GPM. Efforts like this are important and I do not mean to disparage what has been done. However, the effort needs to be much grander to connect isolated reaches of habitat and provide sufficient habitat.

I also admire the small handful of Big Hole ranchers that voluntarily decrease water use to help grayling. The simple fact is, however, that Big Hole irrigators as a group consistently dewater the river: year, after year, after year. Voluntary efforts have failed to maintain the minimal river flows needed to sustain grayling. In some years of extreme drought, the Big Hole Watershed Committee has decided not to implement its "emergency drought management plan." Why? Well, because there was a severe, emergency drought. So much for voluntary plans.

The lesson: until Montana's fluvial Arctic grayling is listed as an endangered species and greater restoration efforts are brought to bear – especially when it comes to keeping more water in the river – Big Hole River grayling will continue to decline. We've tried everything else, now let's quit fiddling around and try the law.

Our children and grandchildren may have to venture to Alaska in order to catch a grayling. We should not squander their natural heritage.

US FWS map of upper Missouri River watershed, showing dams and the Big Hole River (far left)--last tributary with native grayling:


secret agent woman said...

Just another reason to despise GWB.

Janie said...

Thank goodness the new administration is reconsidering endangered species. Ditto comment above.

Anonymous said...

Did you see the 'opinion' in the Sunday MTstandard from the fellow who thinks that catch and release, not stocking the river and other inane ideas is the real culprit behind the declining Grayling population? And the idiot that commented he thought you were 'making a killing', income-wise, from the issue??
I can't find it today, but if you can you should send it to TU, and other orgs.

Mike on broadway

~Sheepheads said...

All the times I've hunted in the Steele Creek area, I've never known there were Grayling there. This year, I'm taking a rod along. Interesting report ER.

EcoRover said...

Thanks, Mike. I did read all the MT Std replies. I didn't take the comments from the rancher too hard. I spent 10 years working with some of those guys on the Big Hole Watershed Committee, and many ranchers live very cut off from what many of us know about history and environmental issues. Some ranches operate like remote (in space AND time) feudal fiefs. And when the issue of water rights comes up, the mantra of "private property rights" drowns out any sense of reason even among the most intelligent among them.