Say his name around the Big Hole River Valley and some ranchers will tell you they don’t think too highly of him. It’s only natural that they’d say that.
Pat Munday is one of five plaintiffs suing to get federal protections for the Big Hole River Arctic grayling under the Endangered Species Act. And ranching and endangered species don’t always mix well.
There are bad days, like the time Munday walked into a bar in Melrose, Mont., and a rancher called him an asshole. But there are good days, too — like the time Munday successfully collaborated with ranchers and other residents of the Big Hole River Valley as an active member of river advocacy groups.
Munday loves the Big Hole River, but loves grayling even more. At age 10, he read about grayling and was captivated by their beauty, rarity and evolutionary history. He moved to Montana in 1990, fell in love with Big Hole Valley, and in 1998 wrote a book, Montana’s Last Best River: the Big Hole and its People. He caught his first grayling on Labor Day 1990 at Mussigbrod Lake, a feeder to the Big Hole River. His favorite photo shows his daughter at age three—holding up a catch of several grayling.
Now, at age 53, he teaches science and technology studies at Montana Tech in Butte. On a recent day, an Akubra-style hat shades his sun-soaked face; a few feathers stick out the top, flies for fishing stick out of the hatband, and a gray ponytail hangs from the back. His smallish torso is protected by an olive-drab Army jacket. He is soft-spoken, but don’t be fooled. “I never steer away from conflict,” he says.
First and foremost, Munday is an environmentalist and pragmatist who speaks for the Big Hole River grayling. He once rallied to save these fish as a member of two local watershed groups, the Big Hole Watershed Committee (BHWC) and the Big Hole River Foundation. At one time he was very critical of another organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, which he called “an extremist environmental group” because of its practice of filing lawsuits to protect at-risk and endangered species. Six years later, Pat is still fighting for the grayling—and the Center for Biological Diversity is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit he’s filed.
Munday agrees that legal action is the last-ditch measure to save this population of grayling. But he thinks the BHWC no longer represents all the river’s stakeholders. Its policies are frozen in time, he says.
“I want results,” says Munday. “When the watershed committee proved unable to achieve them, and unable even to embrace the evidence that grayling merited an Endangered Species Act listing, then I went looking for other ways to help recover the fish.”
Munday is an e-protester. When the non-listing decision came down in April of 2007, Pat produced a video—find it on YouTube—called “President Bush Grills an Endangered Species.” In his two blogs—Ecorover and the Big Hole Watershed Committee grayling report—Munday offers mostly critical views about the lack of work going toward grayling restoration and the lack of maintenance for healthy river flows. Blog posts from last summer (including “Big Hole River grayling: cooked for another year”) pepper the site next to pictures of cows grazing in flooded pastures along eroded stream banks.
“I think that publicizing the case of grayling and other endangered species is every bit as valuable of work as the on the ground stuff,” Munday says.
In 1997, the BHWC adopted a Drought Management Plan to effectively mitigate low stream flows and water temperatures that were lethal to fish in the river. Included in this plan was a grayling survival flow, the water level that biologists feel the species can successfully handle. As an espouser of higher flows in the Big Hole, Munday says the BHWC survival flow of 20 cubic feet per second is not science-based. So he created his own grayling survival index—a math formula based on river flows—to “try and rattle the watershed committee.
Peter Lamothe, biologist from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, doesn’t share Munday’s sentiments, but says it’s good to have scrutiny from an extreme viewpoint to “force the middle ground to shift a little bit.”
For Munday, the bottom line is the number of grayling that were in the river in the early 1990s compared to their present numbers. “Fewer,” he says. “If you work with an unethical and anti-environmental process, you are contributing to the damage that it does.” Wistfully he adds, “I can’t morally be part of that.”