This article is a partnership production of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program—Mountain-Prairie Region and Intermountain West Joint Venture. Click here to read all four stories in this series.
By Kristen A. Schmitt
The Big Hole River, a well-known fly-fishing paradise, winds between the Anaconda Range and the Pioneer Mountains, spanning 156 miles across southwestern Montana. It flows past the small town of Wisdom where Blake Huntley, a fourth-generation rancher, raises about 1,500 cattle in the valley. It’s also one of the last remaining places in the contiguous United States to find Arctic Grayling. A cousin of the trout, this member of the salmonid family is known for its large colorful saillike dorsal fin and beautiful iridescent hues, and has been on and off the candidate list for Endangered Species Act protection for years.
Historically, Arctic Grayling were found in both Michigan and Montana, but have since vanished from the Great Lakes state where there is a current effort to restore self-sustaining populations within its historical range. An important part of Montana’s natural heritage, Arctic Grayling were once widespread throughout the Missouri River drainage. Now, the Big Hole River is one of the few remaining places where strictly river-dwelling grayling exist in Montana.
“Montana Arctic grayling have been on the radar for listing since the early 90s,” says Jim Magee, a private lands biologist for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife (PFW) program in Montana.
PFW, which works with private landowners on a voluntary basis to restore and enhance habitat for Federal Trust Species while supporting working lands through financial and technical assistance, has been a critical ally to the recovery of Arctic Grayling. This is because 90 percent of Arctic Grayling habitat in the Big Hole Valley falls on private lands, which are owned by traditional livestock cattle ranchers like Huntley who raise cows and grow hay.
Because this fish species primarily exists on private lands, it is “essential to work with landowners to alleviate threats impacting the future of Arctic Grayling,” says Magee, which is why Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation worked with the FWS and private landowners to establish a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) program for Big Hole Arctic Grayling. The CCAA allows landowners to develop and implement conservation plans to address the threats to Arctic Grayling like inadequate stream flows, channel and riparian habitat, fish passage or entraining grayling in irrigation ditches.
“In return,” says Magee, “the landowners get what we call regulatory assurances, which means if the species is listed, they’d only be required to do what they’ve already agreed to. Essentially, it provides landowners peace of mind from potential Endangered Species Act concerns and helps to ensure their ability to have economically sustainable operations.”
“It’s all about partnerships and developing trust,” adds Magee.
Huntley, who is one of 33 landowners enrolled in the CCAA, couldn’t agree more.
“You couldn’t have this level of success if only one or two ranchers were involved,” says Huntley, adding that the CCAA has about 150,000 acres currently enrolled, including 3,350 acres of his land. With the help of CCAA partners, Huntley has installed headgates and measuring devices on his property to improve efficiency and regulate the flow within his irrigation system and fencing along the riverbanks to control seasonal grazing and enhance riparian vegetation. Other projects coordinated by PFW and the CCAA partners that Huntley has been involved with include restoring riverbanks by planting willows, repairing structural bank damage, and installing fish passage structures and stock water systems.
“Without the landowner commitment—without their buy in, it’s not going to work,” says Huntley. “That’s what I love about CCAA. You’ve got great people on the ground who know what needs to be done to help species like the Arctic Grayling while also listening to what we as landowners value, too. They want our viewpoints and our involvement.”
While Huntley points out that there have been some challenges beyond their control — like droughts that have impacted water levels in previous years—for the most part, the projects completed by him and other landowners have proven successful.
“We’re super fortunate because we have a great monitoring program,” says Magee. “We’ve developed a toolbox to address threats and we measure habitat response based upon those conservation metrics.”
One way they monitor is by measuring stream flows. Magee points out that they hit their flow targets 75 percent of the time, which was what they had hoped to do. They also keep tabs on the grayling response and have seen the average number of breeding individuals increase 66 percent from 2006-2011 to 2015-2018, suggesting that the Arctic Grayling population is benefiting from on-going conservation efforts.
“It’s a great formula because we have the ability to measure both the habitat response and the fish response, and keep private working lands in production,” says Magee.