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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...