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Stocking grayling in Big Hole tributaries: Utility or futility?

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The imperiled status of the river-dwelling population of Arctic grayling in Montana continues to roil the waters of public debate about the fate of the species’ survivors in the Big Hole River.

The latest wrangle focuses on the utility or futility of stocking grayling in a Big Hole watershed creek and tributaries during a time of low flows and warm water.

This fall, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks released Arctic grayling fingerlings into a section of French Creek previously treated to remove non-native fish. The fingerlings stocked a portion of the creek above a fish barrier designed to keep non-native fish from swimming upstream.

Arctic grayling

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is stocking French Creek with Arctic grayling fingerlings. French Creek flows into Deep Creek, which is a tributary of the Big Hole River. The river is home to the last population of fluvial Arctic grayling in the Lower 48. 

French Creek flows into Deep Creek, which is a tributary of the Big Hole — the river that hosts the last population in the Lower 48 of fluvial, or river-dwelling, Arctic grayling.

During the spring and summer of 2023, the agency plans to stock Arctic grayling fingerlings into French Creek and a few of its tributaries.

“Introductions [of the grayling] into unoccupied tributaries to the Big Hole River are intended to expand the fish’s distribution, not enhance the mainstem population,” said Morgan Jacobsen, a spokesman for FWP’s Region 3.

Grayling eggs used to grow the fingerlings are sourced from Axolotl Lake, which is southeast of Virginia City.

“Each year, crews go to Axolotl Lakes and collect fertilized eggs from the lake, and the fertilized eggs go to [the Yellowstone River Trout Hatchery] in Big Timber to be reared,” Jacobsen said.

“The Axolotl brood was formed from the Big Hole River and is periodically infused with genes from the river to ensure the brood is genetically as close as possible to the wild fish in the river,” he said.

Larger issues

Observers like Pat Munday, a longtime watchdog of the Big Hole River, say if the French Creek stockings are successful it is inevitable there will be interaction between the river population and grayling in the stocked streams.

“I support grayling stocking using egg incubators, or RSIs, in the Big Hole River watershed so long as the eggs come from Big Hole River grayling genetic stock – i.e. the Axolotl Lakes breeder fish,” said Munday, a professor at Montana Technological University in Butte, author of a book about the Big Hole and a fly fisherman.

Yet Munday and others contend the tributary stocking does nothing to address the larger issues in the Big Hole River about summer flows, water withdrawals and water temperatures.

Arctic Grayling

The Arctic grayling's population in the Big Hole River has been at the center of a long-running legal dispute about whether it should receive protections under the Endangered Species Act. 

RSIs, or remote site incubators, are used to rear fish eggs in isolated locations. They provide the eggs and developing fry with protection and habitat to increase the chances for survival. They typically employ 5-gallon buckets set in a stream or on a streambank and are plumbed to allow water to flow through. Each typically hosts several thousand eggs.

Jacobsen said subsequent stocking efforts in French Creek may involve remote site incubators.

Anglers and fisheries biologists alike describe the Arctic grayling as a freshwater fish with a striking appearance. Most impressive is the dorsal fin, invariably described as “sail-like.”

The dorsal fins “are typically fringed in red and dotted with large iridescent red, aqua or purple spots and markings,” according to Montana Field Guides.

In short, the fish can be beautiful to behold.

Researchers have attributed the decline of the river-dwelling Arctic grayling to habitat degradation, competition with non-native fish, predation, climate change and exploitation by anglers of a notoriously gullible fish.

Grayling

The last population of river-dwelling Arctic grayling lives in the Big Hole River. 

ESA listing?

Through the years, environmental groups and individuals have beseeched the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to try to protect the surviving population of fluvial Arctic grayling in the Big Hole River under the Endangered Species Act.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks, based on calculations tied to the number of effective breeders among Arctic grayling in the Big Hole River, estimates that the adult population of grayling in the river is probably around 1,000 fish, an estimate the agency describes as conservative.

Record years of drought and previous listing campaigns have spurred responses from the region’s ranching community, which has no desire for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to start bird dogging its irrigation practices.

In 1994, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Arctic grayling was a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, with the upper Big Hole River a critical threatened population stronghold.

In 1995, the Big Hole Watershed Committee was established after ranchers and others recognized a need to be proactive about critical issues facing the watershed.

The long winters in the upper Big Hole require cattle ranchers to grow an abundance of hay and alfalfa during the fleeting summers to feed livestock when snow covers the fields. That means pulling water from the Big Hole River for irrigation. And that impacts flows and temperatures in the river, which, in turn, impacts the flow-and-temperature sensitive grayling.

The last two summers have been especially troublesome, with flows dropping and temperatures rising.

On Oct. 24, Munday and three environmental groups announced plans to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court if the agency fails to reconsider within 60 days its past denial of Endangered Species Act protections for the Arctic grayling.

The following day, Joe Szuszwalak of the Fish and Wildlife Service turned down an opportunity to weigh in about the potential lawsuit when contacted by The Montana Standard.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service respectfully declines to comment on pending or active litigation,” he said.

At the time, Pedro Marques, executive director for the Big Hole Watershed Committee, showed no such reticence.

“Our first comment is, ‘Here we go again,’” Marques said. “The threat of litigation 28 years ago was effective in mobilizing a grassroots effort to develop a conservation strategy that has, by most accounts, been a tremendous success and continues to be a model across the West.”

He noted that federal action could drive ranchers off the land, leaving it vulnerable to subdivision. And he referenced Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ efforts to stock French Creek and tributaries.

“Fish, Wildlife and Parks just began stocking 40 miles of headwater tributaries with grayling and other native species, after 10 years of habitat restoration in the French Creek drainage, part of the second largest native fish project in Montana history,” Marques said.

“Three years from now, those fish will be populating the lower river. We should give that time to play out,” he said.

‘Band-Aid’

But Munday and others involved in the latest effort to secure Endangered Species Act protections for the fluvial Arctic grayling in the Big Hole River say the stocking efforts aren’t addressing the larger issues of water withdrawals, flow and temperature.

“Grayling stocking in the Big Hole River is definitely a Band-Aid,” Munday said. “The critical issue for successful grayling recovery is improved instream flows.

“With better flows, issues such as connectivity and lethal summer water temperatures will also be addressed,” he said. “Currently, there is simply too much water diverted for irrigating hayfields, especially when the river experiences chronic drought conditions in July, August and September.”

Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, offered a similar observation.

Beaverslides

Big Hole ranchers invented the beaverslide as a way to stack and store hay that was vital to cattle herds during the long winters. 

“Adding hatchery-raised grayling to streams that lack suitable habitat for grayling because they are too warm or too muddy is an exercise in futility,” Molvar said. “If we want to save the river and stream populations of Arctic grayling, we’re going to have to cut back on irrigation withdrawals and reform heavy livestock grazing in headwater areas first.”

Marques offered a different view of stocking.

“I don’t think it’s a Band-Aid,” he said, describing the grayling stockings as a substantive improvement and a substantive push forward.

“FWP’s mandate is to expand the range of native fish,” Marques said.

He said the Big Hole Watershed Committee has always supported the restoration of native fish.

The Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, headquartered in San Francisco, and Munday were the parties in October announcing their intent to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service if it did not initiate the listing process for the fluvial Arctic grayling.

The groups alleged that the Big Hole population “has continued to move toward the precipice of extinction” because of “a barrage of threats.”

Perry Wheeler, a spokesman for Earthjustice, said extensive and widespread reintroduction of grayling in the Arctic grayling’s historical range “could play a role in efforts to save the species.”

He added, “But any such efforts, including stocking, would be undermined if chronic dewatering is not addressed and remedied.”

Wheeler said ensuring sufficient instream flows must be the priority, especially as the effects of climate change continue to intensify and complicate challenges around flow and temperature.

“Along with addressing chronic dewatering, the survival of Arctic grayling will also depend on additional mitigation efforts, including better grazing management, addressing algal growth in the upper river, and addressing fish entrainment with screens installed in every ditch or irrigation withdrawal,” Wheeler said.

‘Hard conversations’

Michigan once had a population of Arctic grayling but it disappeared in the 1930s. The extinction was attributed to logging, overfishing and competition from non-native species.

Now, Michigan is moving forward with plans to return the fish to northern streams in the state.

Meanwhile, Marques suggested a lawsuit won’t move the needle for the fluvial grayling in Montana.

“It certainly helps the litigants raise money for their work,” he said.

Marques said he’d like to see the stockings have time to play out before any listing litigation moves forward.

“What the litigants are doing is easy,” he said. “They’re not sitting at the table having hard conversations.”

Jim Olsen, a fisheries biologist for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, described previous efforts to stock Wise River and Trail Creek in the Big Hole watershed.

“We introduced grayling eggs and a few fry into the Wise River from 2014 to 2018 in an attempt to augment a very small population of grayling,” Olsen said. “The effort focused mostly on the area upstream of the confluence of Lacy Creek up to the confluence of Little Joe Creek. Over 350,000 eggs were incubated on the side of the river and released directly to the river after hatching.”

Olsen said subsequent monitoring failed to detect any grayling that would have originated from these efforts and therefore the egg stocking was discontinued.

“We did the same thing in Trail Creek during the same years with similar numbers of eggs with the same results,” he said. “I think these streams were too cold and sterile for grayling.”

How and when will fisheries biologists know whether the grayling stockings planned in French Creek and tributaries have been successful?

“We usually deem the stocking successful for restoration purposes when the population begins to reproduce on its own and becomes self-sustaining,” Jacobsen said.

“Grayling can spawn for the first time as 2-year-olds, but more typically spawn at age 3. So it will take three to four years to determine if an introduction has the potential to be successful when self-reproduced juvenile fish are present,” he said.

History records that the Arctic grayling was once widespread throughout the upper Missouri River drainage as far downstream as Great Falls.

In July 2020, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced that Endangered Species Act protections for the Upper Missouri River distinct population segment of the Arctic grayling were not warranted, “based on a review of the best available science.”

The agency said then that critical conservation work completed by partners who included private landowners “helped address threats to the species, including reduced river flows, degraded riparian areas, fish barriers and entrainment.”

That observation preceded two memorably hot and dry summers, when low flows and rising temperatures in the Big Hole River caused fishing restrictions and closures and renewed concerns about water withdrawals for irrigation.

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