It’s late April in Jackson, Mont.—calving season for ranchers—and Jeff Everett is standing in Harold Peterson’s feedlot with lowing cattle nearby. He is ankle-deep in manure and shooting photos of the small puddles of water in the center of the lot.
“This is cool,” he says, peering through the lens of his Nikon. It’s not what you’d expect a man to say while standing in cow dung, but then Everett is not your typical person. A wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Everett is here to evaluate the condition of a feedlot restoration project he helped complete last fall—one of many projects that were undertaken to help recover a dwindling population of Arctic grayling in the Big Hole River in southwestern Montana.
Everett’s task is sometimes challenging, especially since his bosses at the Department of the Interior decided that the Arctic grayling is not a genetically distinct population and should not receive protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This, despite the fact that the fish are the last native population of river-dwelling Arctic grayling in the Lower 48, with population estimates of about 1,000. Not surprisingly, the decision is being challenged in court.
In the meantime, Everett works to protect and restore their habitat in places like the feedlot. This project, executed six months after the decision was made to take Big Hole grayling off the consideration list for ESA protection, involved the relocation of 1,100 feet of Big Swamp Creek, a tributary of the upper Big Hole and a historic spawning ground for the grayling.
Regardless of what the Department of the Interior, Justice Department and other competing interests decide about the grayling, Everett understands that action on the ground—not a lawsuit or ESA listing—will help the species survive.
“I love what I see here,” says Everett. He describes the new features of Big Swamp Creek as it carves its way through the original floodplain in a series of runs, riffles, clean gravel and flat pools. One year ago, he says, Big Swamp Creek flowed lifeless through the middle of Peterson’s feedlot. Back then the creek was a shallow, wide channel with no riparian vegetation, devoid of any fish habitat; it looked more like a wading pool for cattle than an active creek. The Petersons originally diverted it into their feedlot back in the 1950s to provide year-round water for their livestock.
The creek relocation is one of 47 active restoration projects being implemented by Everett and the various agencies and stakeholders in the Big Hole Valley, and is part of the Candidate Conservation with Assurances Agreement (CCAA), a voluntary program for landowners who conserve the habitats of at-risk species. Other CCAA projects include everything from drilling stock water wells to creating fish passages and improving headgates in irrigation systems. Essentially, landowners who help save the grayling today by improving fish habitat on their property are safe from further conservation obligations that the government might demand if the species wins ESA protections in the future.
For the feedlot project, contractors in November 2007 spent three weeks moving dirt, building a livestock fence and planting sod mats, costing the CCAA program $55,000 or roughly $49 per foot of stream. This relocated the creek back to its original floodplain, and with a berm in place to prevent waste run-off, Big Swamp Creek is now on its way to once again becoming a healthy fishery.
“This met our goals and objectives from a restoration and fisheries point of view, and it also met the landowner’s expectations and obligations from a ranch management and operation point of view,” Everett says.
Overall, the project has been a success. With above-average snow pack and a wet spring, the stretch of stream was tested with high run-off flows and successfully held together. “A few small chunks of sod mat did shift on us,” Everett says. “But overall the project held together extremely well through its first real test.”
The fishery also is responding. The Peterson family has reported seeing fish in the channel. “We now have fish using this reach of stream for the first time in more than four decades,” Everett says.
Regardless of what the courts decide about the grayling’s status, Everett continues doing what he knows will have an immediate, positive impact on the fishery—completing many small projects in collaboration with private landowners.
“Ultimately,” Everett says, “when it comes to preserving and restoring a species on this scale over hundreds of square miles, working with private landowners is where it’s at. We need the same thing that a working ranch needs: large open spaces, healthy grasslands, good water quality and plenty of it.”