I’m standing on the bank of the Big Hole River with fly-fishing guide Mike Bias of Twin Bridges, Mont., preparing for an afternoon of angling. As he scans the water, he quickly puts together my plan. He hands me a brown, hand-tied girdle bug and several San Juan worms, and tells me to carefully cross the river. Next, he instructs me to walk back up into the pool, casting along the way: it’s important to get the flies down deep and watch my back-cast, he says. Fifteen minutes later I’m releasing a 14-inch brown trout.
It’s obvious that Bias is a talented angler, adept at navigating the complexities of a river. And he’s extended those skills to his work as the executive director of the Big Hole River Foundation (BHRF), where he navigates political waters to protect a rare fish: the fluvial Arctic grayling.
In April 2007, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) made a controversial decision to keep the Arctic grayling of the Big Hole River off a candidate list for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It was Bias’s job to quickly take a position on the issue—without alienating his members, pro and con.
When the decision was issued, Bias says ranchers from downriver were telling him “we sure dodged a bullet with this one.” But upriver, near Divide, Mont., there were protesters—including some former BHRF board members—who were grilling paper-mache grayling on the banks of the Big Hole and filming it for a YouTube video to publicize what they thought was a misinformed decision by the FWS. Both groups wanted support from the foundation.
What could Bias do? He considered the group’s history, to start.
The BHRF was started by conservationist and famed angler George Grant. A resident of Butte with a background in protecting watersheds—the local Trout Unlimited chapter bears his name—Grant formed the nonprofit 20 years ago to protect and conserve the Big Hole River. Funds for the 400-member foundation come from both individual and corporate donors. Its board of directors is diverse, and includes both a rancher from the valley and a professor from Butte. Regardless of their different backgrounds, all members want to find the best options to care for the unique watershed.
Some river advocates believe legal action is the best way to protect the grayling, and a lawsuit has been filed to challenge the FWS grayling decision. Bias, however, says that kind of action is too extreme for his more-moderate foundation. On the other hand, he believes the grayling deserves ESA protection. So Bias has called for science-based conservation strategies to effectively enhance the critical habitat of the species. The foundation, to that end, supports programs like the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA), in which landowners voluntarily take steps to protect the grayling’s habitat, thereby avoiding any federal interventions if the fish gets ESA protections in the future.
With his educational science background—he studied the spotted owl for his master’s thesis and small mammal dynamics for his doctorate—Bias says he knows the 2007 FWS finding is flawed. “As a decision based in biology, it was ludicrous,” he says.
He also believes the CCAA is an excellent program for immediately conserving and, potentially, recovering the grayling in the Big Hole. Finally, Bias supports the rights of the individuals and groups to pursue legal action to challenge the FWS decision.
“Listing doesn’t necessarily save a species that gets on the list,” he notes. “That’s important for people to know. But, I think the end result, if it is listed, it will help. My concern with individuals and groups that are just concerned with suing the government isn’t by itself helping. A lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t going to put more grayling in the river in the next five years. I haven’t seen a lawyer out here yet that is helping put more grayling in the river.”
Since the introduction of the Endangered Species Act in 1973, 1,358 species have received protection; 149 of them are fish or distinct population segments. Of those 149, none has been designated as a recovered species. Only five have been removed from the list, four because of extinction and one due to a taxonomic revision. A few endangered or threatened species have enjoyed increased numbers, including the shortnose sturgeon and greenback cutthroat trout. But even those fish haven’t seen enough growth to warrant removal from the list.
This is the crux of a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation that Bias has been giving to the various interests involved with Big Hole grayling. He’s spoken at gatherings like the Arctic Grayling Recovery Program luncheon, an annual meeting of scientists, conservationists and other grayling-related interests. He’s also spoken to the Big Hole Watershed Committee, which consists primarily of landowners in the Big Hole Valley.
It’s tough to accommodate so many various river interests, he says. But all politics aside, conservation of the river, streams and ranching culture is at the heart of Bias’ motivation. He wants to make a difference in the Rocky Mountain West, on a river he’s been guiding on for years.
“This river valley is unlike any other river valley in the West,” Bias says. “It’s not developed, it’s largely ranching families, it’s an un-dammed and unique fishery. But it still needs conservation effort, and that is where I think I can make a difference.”