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Arctic Grayling
Will They Be Delisted?

Actic GraylingThe U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) will determine by April of 2007, if the fluvial arctic grayling should be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona sued the USFWS and forced them into looking into a protected status. They will go through the process of evaluating the grayling’s status. (See below article on EA.) The USFWS has not done much to protect the river-dwelling fish that has been reduced to a single, self-sustaining population in a stretch of the Big Hole River. Once the fish was found throughout the upper Missouri River drainage, but now it’s on the brink of extinction. The grayling needs the safety net of the ESA to survive.

In 1994, USFWS determined that listing was warranted but precluded, because there were species with a higher priority, like bull trout and westslope cutthroats. Since then the grayling is considered a “candidate species” and its status reviewed on an annual basis. MT Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MTFWP) is working on a “candidate conservation agreement with assurances” it hopes will eliminate the need for listing by encouraging landowners to protect stream-side habitat, leaving more water in streams and establishing grayling populations in other areas. Stocking in the Ruby, Sun, lower Beaverhead, Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson has given little evidence of natural reproduction of self-sustaining populations as yet. MTFWP believes that listing would drive a wedge between conservationists and ranchers whose land borders arctic grayling waters.

In May, 2004, when normal flows are around 410 cfs, flows dropped to 15 cfs, then 6 cfs in the middle reaches of the Big Hole River. That year, the federal Natural Resources & Conservation Service (NRCS) offered ranchers on the Big Hole from $40 to $60 per acre (totaling $1 million) not to irrigate their hay meadows and pastures. The goal was to have more water in the upper Big Hole, home of the last native stream-living population of grayling in the lower 48 states, and aid in its survival. On Friday, June 18th, the river was dewatered to 30 cfs. A total of 15 ranchers accepted NRCS’s offer for not irrigating and days after shut-off water levels rose to 159 cfs. Ensuring a minimum of 60 cfs for the long term is necessary to protect a self-sustaining, healthy population of arctic grayling. In March, 2005, NRCS told the ranchers that they were not going to keep paying them every year to shut down irrigation for short-term, temporary water.

In 2006, NRCS will require the following measures:

1. Water control and fish passage and measuring devices at intakes.

2. Wells, pipelines, watering facilities.

3. Fencing, deferred grazing, riparian forest buffers with no grazing.

4. Eliminate direct access to streams, diverting water around and not through feed lots.

5. Better uses for cow manure instead of into the stream.

The Arctic grayling is a fish of the north Russia. The only grayling in the lower 48 is in Michigan and in the upper Missouri headwaters. Having evolved in the Arctic where food is scarce, the grayling attacks food with abandon and is easy pray for anglers. By the late 1970s, the only remaining fluvial grayling in the lower 48 states was in the Big Hole River. Those in the Ruby, Sun and other tributaries died out due to dams preventing their migration, siltation (smothers eggs), logging, cattle grazing and competition from introduced species. In the drought of 1988, some upper reaches of the Big Hole went dry and grayling numbers plummeted from 100 per mile to 22 per mile. In response, MTFWP restricted grayling on the Big Hole to catch and release. Environmental groups then petitioned to list the grayling for protection under the Endangered Species Act. To forestall ESA listing, MTFWP agreed to continue grayling conservation work it had begun on the Big Hole and to restore grayling populations on other rivers. Using state and federal funds, 20 cattle watering wells have been drilled, so river water did not need to be diverted for cattle and hay. Also planting of willows on tributaries and fencing out cattle have been tried. Jon Marvel, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project says: “The lethargic process developed by FWP and MTFWP is turning into a death sentence for grayling.”

Grayling Plan EA

The goal of the Grayling Plan is to get ranchers in the Big Hole Valley, where economy is based on cattle and irrigation, to leave more water in the river and to use the water they take more efficiently. Almost all of the land is privately owned. The Plan calls for boosting the efficiency of irrigation on 380,000 acres in the 1,800,000 acre watershed. This means changing the timing and the amount of water diverted from the river, improving water diversion structures, changing cattle grazing in riparian areas, and reducing or eliminating the number of grayling stranded in irrigation ditches. State and federal money would pay for labor and capital improvements. In 2004 and 2005 federal programs paid ranchers $1,200,000 to install water saving measures. The Grayling Plan is called Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA).

Over-watering with irrigation water has created artificial wetlands on bench lands and consequently plant species in cow pastures are now wetland-dependent plants, not naturally occurring without irrigation. Instead of putting up hay, which requires that flood irrigation cease in July, some ranchers are grazing cattle on irrigated meadows all summer long, consuming irrigation water throughout the season. The upper Big Hole River is plagued by chronic dewatering and reducing the amount of diverted water would improve river flow for grayling. The Grayling Plan EA says the status quo is not enough to save the grayling and current practices don’t appear to be sustainable. Implementing the planned EA would also improve habitat for non-native fish like brown and rainbow trout, with no negative effect on local communities or their economy.

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