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Jonathan Stumpf

Can Conservation and Collaboration Save the Big Hole Grayling?

To the casual observer, the upper Big Hole River valley is just another classic Western landscape with postcard-worthy vistas and comforting desolation. But in this high-altitude river, the struggle of an imperiled fish is playing out.

In this valley, time has stood relatively still, with the terrain intact just as it was 50 years ago. The river, however, is changing. It is home to the last native population of fluvial (river-dwelling) Arctic grayling in the Lower 48, and the fish has been in steady decline since it was described more than 25 years ago by nature writer David Quammen as “under certain specific conditions, the most exquisitely colorful bit of living matter to be found in the state of Montana.”

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The Grayling’s Guardians: Mike Bias, the Angler

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.

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The Grayling’s Guardians: Jeff Everett, The Fed on the Ground

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.

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The Grayling Guardians: Pat Munday, The Lorax

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.

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The Grayling’s Guardians: Peter Lamothe, the Eco-capitalist

Peter Lamothe, a fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, is a hopeful pragmatist. The recovery of the Arctic grayling in the Big Hole River in southwestern Montana, in his view, requires more water in the river and an improved riparian habitat. It also requires finding a consensus, from local ranchers to NGOs. “I know in the long run,” Lamothe says, “if we are going to save grayling in the Upper Big Hole, this is the approach we need to take.” Last April Lamothe guided New York Times reporter Jim Robbins on a trip to the Big Hole Valley for an article about climate change. Robbins took the time to speak in-depth with Lamothe and Big Hole Valley ranchers, and left rather excited about the work being done to improve the habitat for the grayling. Then Robbins went and spoke with a climatologist.

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The Grayling’s Guardians: Harold Peterson, the Neo-Conservationist

On the late April day I visit Harold Peterson on his 2,700-acre ranch in the Big Hole Valley of southwestern Montana -- where he raises 500-head of cattle and lives with his two sons, their spouses, six grandkids, three dogs, and seven horses -- everything on his ranch is as I expected. “This is 100 years of gathering,” says the 72-year-old Peterson, playing tour guide as we walk around his lifelong home. He gives me the story behind each structure, all painted ranch-red. On this day the centerpiece to the two houses and 10 outbuildings is a 20-foot steel tubular cart that’s overflowing with hay. The red log house he built for his mother in 1959 sits 25 yards from his own. The log barn homestead that is almost 120 years old was moved from its original location one mile down the road to its present site. The rugged barn with the horse stables is also used for calving. The mechanic shop he built for his sons is where they overhaul tractor engines. “I put every stinking screw in it by myself,” he says of the building.

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