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.”
|Photo by Mark Emery. All other photos by Jonathan Stumpf.|
The grayling, a member of the salmonid family, is a cousin of both the trout and the mountain whitefish. While it more closely resembles the dreary gray scales found on the whitefish, it has a unique characteristic that sets it apart: a pronounced sail-like dorsal fin. This prehistoric feature is splattered with cerulean, violet and deep-turquoise spots layered over black ovals and blends to the underbelly with a rosy patina that looks like the most brilliant alpenglow. When underwater, the grayling can equal the beauty of the most spectacular native trout.
As an age-old fight for water continues, the Big Hole grayling population—estimated at around 1,000—is trying to hang on. “We’ve got Arctic grayling swimming through sagebrush in Montana,” says Peter Lamothe, fisheries biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP). “That’s kind of a unique thing.”
Culturally and biologically, things run much slower up here—possibly one reason why the grayling, a glacial relic from the Pleistocene era hanging on at the southern extent of its range, have persisted in four percent of its original range.
In the valley, a broad mix of scientists, ranchers and environmentalists have been working for years to save the grayling, all in their own ways. Their stories are below.
Over the years, the fight for the grayling has included common tactics: Federal litigation, activism, educational studies and habitat restoration. But so far, no action has given much hope. Until now. A collaborative conservation process involving government, ranchers and non-governmental agencies is emerging as the possible salvation of the fish.
It’s called the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances program and you might call it a form of conservation insurance. It’s somewhere between voluntary conservation and federal mandate, a middle-ground that might just save one of Montana’s native species.
Opinions have always differed about what should be done for the Big Hole grayling, often radically. But the problem and the solution always come down to one thing: water. In this harsh climate where ranching rules the land and growing seasons are short, water is at the heart of survival for both the fish and the rancher. The ranchers depend on the water for economic survival; without it the agricultural landscape would perish. For the grayling to thrive, the water should be cool, clean and abundant. However, these days, adequate water in the Big Hole River is lacking for everyone.
Similar struggles are happening across the West, where ecology and economy converge. A high-profile case took place in 2001, in the Klamath River basin in eastern Oregon. The river was determined to provide critical habitat to both the endangered sucker fish and threatened Coho salmon. That year, the federal government denied water to 1,300 users in the basin, saying that under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the fish trump the farmers. In the Blackfoot River basin in western Montana, Wasson Creek was dewatered every summer because of the agricultural demands put on it by those with the water rights. In this instance, Montana’s Trout Unlimited leased these private rights and now the creek flows continually throughout summer, providing the necessary habitat for the pure-strain westslope cutthroats that inhabit the stream. Both of these cases mimic what’s playing out in the Big Hole valley.
Historically, fluvial Arctic grayling were found in Michigan and Montana, a glacial relic from the Pleistocene era hanging on at the southern extent of its range. The Michigan population went extinct in the 1930s, leaving the Big Hole River grayling as the last native population in the Lower 48. They once thrived in all rivers in the Missouri River watershed above Great Falls, but then the nation’s thirst brought a need for water storage. This practice is not conducive to grayling survival since they require long connectivity in rivers for spawning. With dams being built on the Missouri, Madison, Sun, Ruby, Jefferson and Beaverhead, the Big Hole was left as the longest stretch—156 miles—of un-dammed river in the watershed. Add the introduction of non-native trout, climate change, habitat degradation, and over-harvest from early anglers, and now the grayling are barely holding on in four percent of their original range. Attempts are being made at restoring other populations in the Ruby and Sun Rivers, but with hatchery fish. Those native populations are already extinct.
Go north to Canada or Alaska and you’ll find ubiquitous populations of the Arctic grayling. They grow much larger and are regarded as a sport fish much like salmon or trout, where these rivers are still very wild, flow much larger and cooler, and provide longer free-flowing stretches required for spawning. Even in other states across the West, adfluvial (lake-dwelling) populations thrive. Until recently, they were viewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as a disparate species based on behavior and genetics. People and agencies have been aware of the diminishing numbers of grayling in the Big Hole for the latter part of the last century, giving the Big Hole grayling quite an active legal history.
The Legal Wrangling
Although this population of grayling has been recognized as a sensitive species for more than a quarter-century, the attempts by organizations to gain ESA protection for the grayling has not been easy. In 1982, the USFWS recognized the Upper Missouri River basin grayling as a sensitive species. Nine years later, with no mandated protection from the USFWS, in 1991, the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tuscon, Ariz., petitioned the USFWS to list the Big Hole grayling under the ESA. Three years later, the USFWS determined it was warranted and put it on a candidate list for ESA protection. Again, in 2003, the Center for Biological Diversity along with the Hailey, Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project sued the USFWS for its refusal to list the grayling. The USFWS responded in March of 2004, still recognizing it as a distinct population segment but this time elevating its status to the highest priority level for a candidate species without making the ESA list. That same year, the previous plaintiffs sued again in May to list the Big Hole grayling under the ESA’s emergency provision. The litigation was settled out of court in August 2005, determining that the USFWS would make a final judgment for ESA protection of the fluvial grayling by April 15, 2007.
Eight days past the 2007 deadline, the USFWS service announced the findings of its 12-month study, stating that the fluvial Arctic grayling of the Big Hole River did not constitute a species, subspecies or distinct population segment and therefore did not warrant protection. The fish was removed from the candidate list for the ESA. Seven months later, the Center for Biological Diversity, along with the Western Watersheds Project, the Federation of Fly Fishers, and individuals George Wuerthner and Pat Munday, filed a lawsuit against the USFWS to overturn the April 2007 decision. The outcome is still pending and could take upward of three years for a decision.
Should the grayling receive listing under the ESA, it could potentially modify the way ranching operations run, forcing the landowners and ranchers to return water to the river. If the fish were listed, each landowner would be assessed on an individual basis by the USFWS as to whether practices are in violation of the Act. Private property rights do limit a complete takeover, but since water is central to grayling survival and is the foundation of their habitat, most ranches’ removal of water from the river would be restricted. Any farmers who receive federal funds, for instance a farm subsidy, would be held to even tighter federal interference should grayling get listed.
Most ranchers, therefore, oppose listing the grayling under the ESA, but that is not to say they want to sit back and watch it to go extinct. Michelle Anderson, a professor at Montana Tech in Butte and board member of the Big Hole River Foundation, recently conducted a survey of 300 watershed residents and agency individuals about grayling management. Although preliminary, the results indicate that of the 90 people who replied, most do believe grayling numbers have stayed about the same or decreased over the last decade. Notably, all but a few respondents wished to see grayling numbers maintain or increase above current levels.
Thus, what’s emerging as a solution for the grayling comes from many of those people Anderson surveyed – the people on the ground in the Big Hole, working on their own solutions, regardless of the possibility of federal intrusion. Back in 2004, all ranchers knew a decision was pending, so Cal Erb, a rancher near Wisdom in the upper Big Hole valley, began investigating the different types of agreements that would offer his ranching operation protection from a grayling listing. He discovered the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances, Lamothe says. The CCAA program was developed in 1999 by the USFWS and provides regulatory incentives to landowners with sensitive species on their properties, as long as they engage in active conservation. In return for habitat conservation work, the landowners sign a legally binding agreement that states they will be protected from being charged with the “taking” of an ESA species should the grayling get listed. Under the ESA, a “taking” of a listed species in this situation would be “modifying the habitat of a listed species in such a way that interferes with essential behavioral patterns including breeding, feeding or sheltering.” De-watering the river or destroying the riparian habitat would be two infractions that under ESA regulations, and could lead to $50,000 in fines or one year in jail or both. So the CCAA essentially states this: Help conserve the grayling now and, should they get listed, you’ll be exempt from further violations and government interference. “They fully understood they would have to implement positive action,” Lamothe says.
In 2005, work began on drafting the CCAA for fluvial Arctic grayling in the upper Big Hole River, a collaborative planning effort of various state and federal agencies, including the USFWS, Montana FWP, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Each agency contributed to the document with roles being administered based on the specialties of each agency, but also based on the previous working relationships the various agencies had with landowners in the valley. While the CCAA is a program based on the implementation of conservation knowledge and skills from the various agencies, it also deeply rooted in the relationships that agency individuals have built up over the years with landowners. Lamothe adds that the success of the program “is based on the personalities of the agency folks that are involved.”
Because of the mobility of the grayling—they sometimes travel up to 70 miles during spawning—the project area encompasses roughly 320,000 acres of private land, from the Dickie Bridge river access—the midway point on the river—up to the headwaters. The overall project area is then broken down into five smaller parcels. The document became official on August 1, 2006, and enrollment was open to any landowners within the program area for 30 months. To date, the CCAA has enrolled 33 landowners with almost 157,000 private acres and 8,000 acres of state land. In comparison to the other 17 active CCAA programs that have been developed since the program’s inception in 1999, the Big Hole CCAA has the largest number of enrollees.
The structure of the CCAA authorizes the USFWS to grant authority to the Montana FWP and their partners to enter into agreements with the 33 landowners and work together to create site-specific restoration projects to enhance the grayling habitat. The four conservation targets in the CCAA are restore in-stream flows, riparian habitat restoration, eliminate entrainment (fish lost in irrigation ditches) and removal of passage barriers for fish.
As of October 2008, there were 47 active projects. These include grazing plans to reduce the impact of livestock on the river banks and digging stock water wells to remove them from the river altogether. Over 70 miles of riparian fencing has gone up along the river and tributaries, and outdated headgates are being replaced to more efficiently manage diversions. Stream-side vegetation is being replaced; during a two-day volunteer effort in 2007, over 20,000 willows were planted along the river and tributaries. Fish barriers have been installed on irrigation ditches. Dilapidated culverts have been replaced and streams relocated out of livestock feedlots.
All of these projects are funded by the various state and federal agencies, and by NGOs, including grants obtained by the Big Hole Watershed Committee and Big Hole River Foundation. Roughly half of the $4 million spent on the project to date has come from taxpayers and the other half from grants. Lamothe, the manager of the CCAA at the state level says they are limited by staff, not funds. “We haven’t identified a project and not be able to fund it,” he says. Ranchers also commit resources to the projects and to date have contributed time, labor, on-site materials like willows, gravel and sod mats, and continuing maintenance of habitat projects.
The Missing Ingredient: Water
However, critics of the CCAA say the essential factor to saving grayling—putting water back into the river—is missing from the agreement. They say consensus doesn’t help because there is no requirement in the CCAA that requires landowners to legally put water back in the river. “Without dealing with the problem of minimum in-stream flows,” says Pat Munday, author and plaintiff in the current USFWS lawsuit, “grayling recovery under the CCAA is doomed to failure. The Rock Creek reconnection project is an example of this: great riparian and stream restoration project, but utter failure last summer  because of de-watering.”
The Rock Creek project overhauled the riparian habitat of the tributary and restored its connection to the Big Hole River (previously, it flowed into an irrigation ditch). Willows were planted and a new stream channel was created in the spring of 2007. That summer, record temperatures and low precipitation throughout the West put a strain on irrigation, and Rock Creek went dry.
Water is at the crux of this issue — but without healthy habitat, the water is essentially useless. Jim Magee, a grayling biologist with Montana FWP, says just water in the river will not recover the grayling. “Without having functioning channel and riparian systems, habitat conditions are severely degraded regardless of flows,” Magee says. “If we have 20 cubic-feet per-second (cfs) in a healthy channel with intact riparian systems, the stream can support much higher biomass, invertebrate, fish and wildlife species. Having a degraded channel that is shallow and over-widened will result in decreased biomass. The message is while in-stream flows are extremely important, there is no magic number.”
While the CCAA does not state a specific amount of water that each landowner must return to the river, it does provide minimum flow targets under a 10-year plan based on the cumulative effect of various actions. This makes the negotiation for reductions in irrigation diversion by the landowners critical. It is a voluntary plan, but all landowner participants are making a concerted effort to strive for the minimum flows. Last year, landowners enrolled in the CCAA released 140 cfs of water to the river that could have been legally used for irrigation, Lamothe says. He understands the landowners’ water rights, which is why collaboration with the landowners to reduce irrigation is so crucial. “There is a legal right to divert water,” Lamothe says. “If your goal is to end that, then your fight from my perspective is in Helena. You have to change the law. If you want to save grayling, then your fight is in the Big Hole.”
“It is hard to put a specific number [on minimum stream flows] because hydrology and climate is extremely variable, and is changing all the time,” say Mike Roberts, the hydrologist from the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation who is working with the CCAA. He says that variables, like the timing of runoff and snowpack, change every year. “We haven’t got resolve on the water issue because it is something that can’t happen overnight. It has taken a lot of years to gain trust to work with these folks.”
Add to the other variables climate change, non-enrolled landowners who have rights to the water and a river basin with more water rights than it has water in the river, and the in-stream flow issue gets sticky. In addition, a water rights adjudication process is underway for the entire Big Hole River basin and a final decree won’t be made for at least two years, at which time many of the water rights could change, adding one more level of complexity.
Another potential option to help manage in-stream flows is the use of water leasing, which suggests two things: a change of part or all of the water right from irrigation to in-stream flow and financial compensation for this change from various agencies. But because the basin is un-adjudicated, the ranchers don’t yet know the amount of their water right or its value. In 2004, the BHWC secured $1 million from the USDA-NRCS to pay ranchers for lost production associated with reduced irrigation diversions. “It was an emergency action with very good intentions from all involved,” Lamothe says, “but as with most things related to water rights it is very difficult to make it perfect. Again, the primary issue was the inability to recognize the value associated with senior water rights because the final decree for the basin has not been issued.”
The motivations to sign up with the CCAA vary. The primary reason is the possible ESA listing, but for Max Lapham, a fourth-generation rancher near Jackson, he says the CCAA has given him the opportunity to complete projects that would normally restrict him financially, with his motivation being that it helps the land, not because of the imminent threat of a grayling listing. “It is going to help the watershed and the creek,” Lapham says. “You understand that much. But it is just whether you want to put that money into that well when there are some other priorities that will come first. But with the CCAA, it puts those things up in the front and we have had the financial help to do it.” He says the process has been educational and the overall effect is helping. “I feel like I am helping what my great granddad started. I feel like I am doing some things that are really good for the land,” Lapham says.
Jim Hagenbarth, a rancher of the lower Big Hole and active member in the Big Hole Watershed Committee, understands the importance of a healthy watershed, but doesn’t believe an area should be managed just for the critical habitat of a specific species. “You lose sight of the big picture and all the other species that are dependent upon the habitat,” Hagenbarth says. “I am more interested in the habitat than the grayling, because it is the base from which life comes.” Hagenbarth clearly appreciates the flow of life within his ranch, but is intolerant of outsiders trying to change his way of life. “The liberal courts and the extreme environmental obstructionists have turned the ESA into a weapon to change land use,” Hagenbarth says. “The groups that support the grayling in court have hardly participated in the grayling recovery efforts. They are only interested in stopping diversion of water and the livestock industry in the Big Hole.”
One of these groups, a plaintiff in the current lawsuit, is the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), an organization that is outspoken about the detrimental effects that ranching can have, and about land and water use in the West. Many of their campaigns involve restoring the landscape of the West to the wild state it once was before the advent of livestock production through either litigation or competitive bidding for grazing leases, a program they pioneered in 1993. Executive director Jon Marvel believes that most ranchers involved with the CCAA have signed up out of fear of an ESA listing for the grayling. “What kind of program is that,” Marvel asks “where you are acting out of fear, instead of because you actually care about saving these fish?”
In this multi-sided controversy, even the various environmental organizations have differing views. Regardless of reasons for signing onto the CCAA, Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, sees that work is immediately being done to improve the habitat. “I think we are getting these guys to do more under a CCAA than they would if they were just straight listed with a top down recovery plan,” Farling says, citing the federal action that supplants local involvement with an ESA listing. “I’m convinced of it, which is why people from Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, the guys that are suing over this stuff, they don’t get any of it. To them, the fish is almost an abstraction. They forget about people. [To them] it is all about reforming western water law—forcing people to put water back in the river and thumping agencies for not doing their jobs. The fish become secondary.”
Marvel says a pre-conception of people who litigate for endangered species is that they hate people, don’t want them around and that they are waging a war on the West. “None of that is true,” he says. But his views differ about the many ranches in the Big Hole valley. “[The ranches] are not important economically to the state of Montana,” Marvel says. “They are not important ecologically. Sure, they are important to individual landowners there, but that is true everywhere. If we are going to save the grayling, the way people are going to live there is not as livestock producers. We really don’t need any more cattle; it is bad for your health anyway.”
He does admit that some ranchers are more actively involved with conservation efforts than others, but not enough so that the net result of all the ranching will save the fish. “They need to put water back in the streams or not take it out in the first place,” Marvel says. “If they are unwilling to do that, then it seems to me that they really don’t want to save the fish.”
Some environmentalists think that current Montana water law gives too much priority to existing water rights and makes it difficult to free up water for environmental purposes, especially since the law regards surface water as a public resource. While other Western states like Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico have minimum in-stream flow laws in place, Montana does not. Marvel says that water is critical for the fish to survive, thus their motivation for challenging the decision. “A lot of people have said to me ‘You can’t change private water rights or water diverted from streams on private land,’” Marvel says. “I think they’re severely mistaken if that is what they believe. I think that the law is powerful enough to force water back in the stream. I don’t know a better way to put it. The law is designed to save species.”
If the Big Hole grayling has any chance of recovery and survival, the CCAA program could be their immediate salvation. With over 157,000 acres of habitat, roughly $4 million in funds and countless man hours on the ground and behind the scenes contributed to this species, it at least gives the grayling a fighting chance.
Kendra Womack, a fish biologist with the USFWS in Boise, Idaho, studied the CCAA program extensively while completing her master’s at Utah State University. She says that the Big Hole CCAA, compared to other CCAAs, really addresses what is being done for the fish. “There are places where the CCAA is being used more to protect the landowners and not the species,” Womack says. “With the grayling, you can identify very specific things to do that have very measurable impact on the species. I don’t know that in the grayling case a listing would really be beneficial, especially because of how much has gone into building relationships and building trust.”
Jeff Everett, the USFWS CCAA representative, says the entire program is based on building relationships with the landowners and that takes an investment of time and energy. “It takes time to build up the credibility that you have their best interest in mind,” Everett says “and that the goals and objective that you have from a resource point of view, and fixing the habitat have everything in common with the ranch, and their goals and objectives from a livestock operation point of view.”
The CCAA does offer a less confrontational way to save grayling, but many ranchers aren’t convinced the document will provide full protection from the law should the grayling get listed. Harold Peterson, a rancher in the upper Big Hole valley along Big Swamp Creek is aware of this and while the CCAA is offering him protection from a possible ESA listing, it has yet to be legally tested once a species is listed. “Who is to say they list the grayling,” Peterson asks, “and then those environmental groups come back in with some high-powered lawyers after you have already done what was asked? This is scary stuff. You get a big group with a lot of money come in here and file a lawsuit, and you have to spend $100,000 to defend yourself. That is not too good. We’re dealing with dynamite really.”
While grayling numbers in the Big Hole have decreased from the time people first noticed, no one involved with recovering the fish has completely given up yet, from the ranchers to the agency individuals to the litigants. They are each implementing what they believe is the best method to restore the grayling, from planting willows to drafting conservation plans to fighting legal battles. The efforts continue and whether it is enough to elicit a positive response from the population is yet to be determined. The Big Hole hasn’t changed too much from the time Quammen traveled to the river to write about these fish and while there may be fewer grayling in the river today, overall his words still hold true: “They are there, the Big Hole grayling,” he wrote in 1982 for Audubon magazine. “At least for now.”
Correction: This story has been altered to correct a reference to fluvial grayling that should have been adfluvial (lake-dwelling) and to correct which agency reimbursed ranchers in 2004 for water not used for irrigation.