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Know the West

What it takes to save an imperiled fish

The impressive effort to restore the Arctic grayling in a Yellowstone National Park stream.


Before releasing the fish, I held it for a full minute in the icy flow of Yellowstone National Park’s Gibbon River. Its sail-like dorsal fin was trimmed with orange and splashed with spots and streaks of red, white, green, turquoise and neon blue. Its flanks glowed with the pink and silver of a Rocky Mountain sunrise. It was an Arctic grayling.

This one had dropped down from Grebe Lake, meaning that it was adfluvial, or lake-dwelling. The fluvial, or river-dwelling, form was extirpated from the park, Michigan and most everywhere in the West decades ago. Lake grayling are easily transplanted outside their natural range, and after years of stocking are more common in high-mountain lakes than they were originally.

The park’s river grayling were victims of the introduced alien trout that were flung around by the old Bureau of Sport Fisheries back in the days when “a fish was a fish,” and its only perceived function was to bend a rod.

In 1936, the Michigan grayling, once so abundant that a city — Grayling — was named after it, went extinct, mostly as a result of logging. In the upper Missouri River watershed, which is largely private ranchland, river grayling have been nearly lost to cattle grazing along streams, water withdrawals and alien trout.

An Arctic grayling fish in Montana.

Today, most managers understand that fish are wildlife, too, and they’re working to keep imperiled species on the planet. For example, the National Park Service now obeys the 1916 Organic Act, which requires it to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife … (and) leave them unimpaired.” That means not polluting water with alien fish, and, in the few cases where it’s possible, removing the invaders with a short-lived organic poison called rotenone.

By 2014, Yellowstone Park had cleared alien trout from 35 miles of Grayling Creek, named before the natives were lost. In spring 2015, managers placed 110,000 fertilized grayling eggs from Montana’s Big Hole River in instream incubators. By fall, the sites swarmed with 3-inch-long fluvial grayling, and last spring, 50,000 more eggs went in.

The public generally supports bringing back the grayling. But a local fishing group, the Wild Trout Conservation Coalition, passionately defends alien trout, firing off screeds to every major and minor politician, bureaucrat and reporter it can find contact info for. The group excoriates the park and recycles mythology about the rotenone formulations used to manage fish.

Rotenone is “highly toxic to humans and animals,” it asserts. But rotenone doesn’t harm anything with lungs, quickly dissipates, and when applied at 50 parts per billion, as it is in modern fisheries management, has never permanently affected an aquatic ecosystem — except to restore it.

Though grayling recovery has been more challenging in the upper Missouri River system, the results have been spectacular even there. Emma Cayer, a biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, reports that grayling numbers have tripled since 2000.

Recovery has been made possible by the Endangered Species Act — not because the fish has been listed, but because it hasn’t. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guarantees landowners immunity from prosecution for inadvertent “takings,” should listing occur, provided that the landowner works to restore habitat. That work can include planting willows, installing fish screens and fish ladders, and fencing cows from riparian areas. Landowners also get technical and financial assistance from state and federal agencies and organizations like The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited. None of the ranchers I interviewed complained about expenses, and all expressed pride in their recovery work.

Based on this success, the Fish and Wildlife Service determined in 2014 that grayling in the contiguous states didn’t warrant a listing as endangered, a decision applauded by virtually the entire environmental community. Two exceptions were the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds, neither of which is based in Wyoming or Montana. Despite multiple requests, neither group has been a participant in working to recover grayling. Instead, they’re suing to get grayling listed.

But the success of grayling recovery in the Big Hole and other Montana and Wyoming streams is further proof that the Endangered Species Act can work better as motivator than punishment, especially on private land.

“The plaintiffs think the incentive for landowners to work with us is gone because of the not-warranted (for listing) decision,” declares Cayer. “We have the exact opposite view.” Legal battles to get the fish listed have been ongoing since 1991, she explains, and no matter what happens with the current litigation, that won’t change. But if listing happens, all participants in grayling recovery fear that landowners will throw up their hands and say, “What more can we do?”

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes the “Recovery” column for The Nature Conservancy’s online publication, Cool Green Science.