Big Hole cooperative averts grayling listing

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Work to restore habitat for the arctic grayling involves the creation of flow control (like human beaver dams) and vegetation to keep soil in place in rivers and streams. The Big Hole Watershed Committee has been working with area ranchers to restore waterways that flow into the Big Hole River, and their work helped keep the arctic grayling population from declining enough to be put on the federal endangered species list. BHWC Executive Director Pedro Marques explains some of the many projects the committee helps with to restore the species. Casey S. Elliott photo

A decades-long partnership between area ranchers, state and federal agencies boosted the population of a native Big Hole River fish, enough to keep it from being listed as an endangered species this year.

The arctic grayling – whose drastic population decline spurred a number of Big Hole River-area conservation initiatives – has bounced back, proving conservation efforts are working.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the species as a threatened or endangered species on the federal register in July, a result of three decades of cooperative work between federal and state agencies and local ranchers. The service determined protections were “not warranted” in the July 23 decision.

The arctic grayling existed mostly in Michigan and Montana decades ago. The Michigan population died out in the 1930s; Montana’s grayling began their decline in the 1980s. Grayling live in mostly high-altitude lakes and rivers in the state. Lake-dwelling grayling are in less danger, as their habitats are largely on state- or federallyprotected land.

The Big Hole River is home to the only known river-dwelling grayling population, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Fish and Wildlife Biologist Jim Magee said. Ninety percent of the land along that river is privatelyowned, creating a unique challenge for protecting the species.

An attempt to list the Big Hole grayling as an endangered species in the early 1990s – along with drought and a periodically de-watered river – prompted locals and conservationists to action. They formed the Big Hole Watershed Committee with area ranchers in 1995; that committee works with a variety of groups to ensure drought management plans and restoration protects everyone’s interests in keeping the Big Hole flowing.

That potential endangered species listing also prompted the creation of the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) for the Big Hole River. The group is a partnership between state and federal agencies, local landowners and ranchers. Landowners that sign on and agree to management plans have assurances they will not have to do more if the grayling are listed as an endangered species.

The major focus is on how the rancher irrigates and allows grazing in and around the Big Hole. Each ranchers’ plan addresses ways to improve the habitat for grayling and fish passage, while at the same time not impacting the ranchers’ operations too severely. The plans focus on four factors, which largely boil down to in-stream water flow and the riparian and in-stream habitat, Magee said. When the streamflow hits a minimum level, fisheries officials ask ranchers to cut back on how much water they are using, by irrigating less or diverting water back into the river.

“When we started doing this in the 90s, ranchers were like, ‘we can put water back in but the neighbor guy will just take it downstream,’” Magee said. “But when you have that many people enrolled, it’s like a shared sacrifice. That’s been the really great thing – just to know that everyone’s not just pointing fingers because of a big water right. They are all helping, too.”

There are 32 landowners enrolled in the CCAA, covering about 156,000 acres of land along the river, CCAA Administrator and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Riparian Ecologist Jarrett Payne said. That represents over 80 percent of landowners and ranchers along the 300-mile stretch of river focusing on grayling habitat restoration.

Each landowner works with the CCAA to develop sitespecific 10-year plans for their areas. Biologists and hydrologists monitor the river, and when streamflows drop too low, landowners are asked to divert water back into the river. The plans also address habitat restoration, which can sometimes require changes in how or where grazing occurs.

The largest landowner – and one of the founding ranchers in the CCAA – Cal Erb said it was the threat of lengthy legal battles with conservationists and federal restrictions for land use that prompted him to join. Erb ranches in the Wisdom area on roughly 25,000 acres among different entities.

“I know when we first got here and first bought land in the late ‘80s, there were times when the river at the Wisdom bridge was dry. People just diverted whatever their water rights were. So instead of trying to cut back and leave water in the stream, everybody was taking a lot of it,” Erb said. “Now people cut back – everyone does – it’s not on just one person. It’s a share-the-pain type of program.”

And though some dry years made it difficult to abide by the restrictions, Erb said the effort has been beneficial overall.

“There’s been a few years it’s been costly, like this year, but the rest of the time it hasn’t worked out so bad,” he said. “You reduce your stock, or you do something to mitigate the damages. It was pretty obvious it was getting pretty damn dry. You do some things to try and not have a complete wreck.

“Dewatering the river doesn’t make your property any more valuable,” he added. “From what I gather from talking to the people who are counting fish, it’s been very successful.”

Jackson-area rancher Peter Frick – who joined the CCAA in the early 2000s – agreed. Frick’s operations lease roughly 3,000 acres along the river.

“We do give up a little bit – we don’t get to irrigate quite as often, especially when the river is low. But it’s not that onerous. It’s not like, ‘Oh my God we can barely make it because we have to cut back.’

“I think it’s honestly worked pretty well, because there is a pretty high percentage of ranchers in the upper Big Hole doing it. The good outcome is partly why (the grayling) didn’t get listed. I think we did some good there,” he added.

The grayling population has increased about 172 percent compared to the early 2000s, Payne said.

“The geneticists are certain – if (the ranchers) had not done this, we would have not seen that increase,” he added. “We do know, cumulatively, those efforts made a big difference.”

The program has been so successful that officials are now in the beginning stages of setting up a CCAA in the Centennial Valley. Payne said roughly five landowners managing 15,000 acres of land are working with him in the Centennial. That potential cooperative would oversee approximately 60 miles of waterway.

“I think the CCAA is a great story of collaboration. The partnership had to learn what the ranching community needed, and at the same time, (the ranchers) had to learn what the fish needed,” Magee said. “It’s so doable if everyone’s willing to listen and bend. And I think we’ve shown for the last so many years, if you just get together and talk things out, and be reasonable, you can really accomplish a lot.”