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.
“He called me back and said, ‘There doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope out there. Not just for grayling, but for trout in the West. The distribution of these species is going to change,’” Lamothe recalls.
To this, Lamothe replied, “Well, what do you want? You want me to not have hope? Not keep doing what we are doing? You can’t act that way.”
So Lamothe doesn’t. He’s trying to save the fluvial Arctic grayling of the Big Hole River, the last native stronghold in the Lower 48, with an estimated population of only 1,000 remaining. In April 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to remove the Big Hole grayling from a candidate list for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Presently, the decision is being challenged in court.
There are myriad factors that could help the grayling survive, from vegetation reclamation and in-stream flows to grazing changes and headgate updates. All these things can have a cumulative effect for recovering the fish. Some projects with these goals in mind are already being executed.
The Candidate Conservation with Assurances Agreement (CCAA) for the Big Hole grayling is one of them. It’s a document drafted with the help of Lamothe and other state and federal agency individuals, and landowners who sign it agree to conserve grayling habitat. In exchange for their pre-emptive conservation, the landowners are offered protection from federal interference, should the grayling get listed under the ESA.
Initially, the challenge was taking this data-heavy conceptual document and implementing it on the ground. For Lamothe, a self-proclaimed eco-capitalist, getting the deal accomplished was a matter of hosting open houses in Wisdom and Jackson—the only two towns in the upper Big Hole—and going door-to-door at each ranch, explaining how the agreement can help the river and ranchers.
The outpouring of support far exceeded expectations, with 40 ranchers initially signing on to the CCAA. Most ranchers wanted to know how much water they needed to give up. Lamothe told them he didn’t want water. “You can put more water through a river with poor habitat and that will be meaningless for grayling,” he told them. He wanted to discuss riparian areas and stream habitat instead. “I think that caught ranchers by surprise,” Lamothe says.
The program itself has been an ongoing educational process, from the drafting of the 149-page document to learning about the irrigation practices and cattle management of the ranching operations, he adds. The ranchers had little knowledge about the methodology to improve fish habitat.
“We’ve seen it with every issue that we deal with,” Lamothe says. “At first, they don’t know what it will mean to their operation, but they are willing to try. Once you get some things in place—fish ladders, fish screens—and you can show them and their neighbors, it gives them peace of mind that we are not trying to take over their operations. We are trying to make some changes that will make it more fish friendly.”
Before the non-listing decision was made, Lamothe thinks that motivation to sign on with the program was tied to potential fears that an ESA listing for grayling would have a negative impact on ranching operations. But two years after the decision, enrollment into the CCAA still continues.
“I think we have seen a real paradigm shift from these landowners,” Lamothe says. “There has just been a lot of pride in getting these projects going.”