Fluvial Arctic Grayling


by Ted Williams

Montana’s Big Hole River system sustains almost the entire population of fluvial (river-dwelling) Arctic grayling in the contiguous states. A conservation effort similar to the Sage Grouse Initiative convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2014 not to list this “distinct population segment” (a designation built into the Endangered Species Act to counter the argument that a species or subspecies doesn’t have to be saved in one region if it survives in another).

Originally, recovery of imperiled species was difficult on private land. But a strategy called Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs) has provided the ESA with adaptability. With CCAAs landowners who agree to protect and restore habitat are guaranteed they won’t be prosecuted for inadvertent “takings” of a species if it gets listed. With the grayling CCAA ranchers are replacing water diversions with wells, installing fish ladders and screens, fencing cattle from riparian zones, and planting willows along stream banks

What’s good for grayling (water conservation) turns out to be good for livestock production. Now ranchers can grow hay in dry periods. If a landowner is diverting river water, the feds will pay for wells, solar-powered pumps and stock tanks. With federal assistance Rick Powers, owner of LaMarche Creek Ranch, has installed two wells and three stock tanks and fenced off LaMarche Creek, a Big Hole tributary. “We’re irrigating hay,” he says, “and we’re using substantially less water. We have heavy organic soils; and what we’re learning is that once the ground is saturated you don’t need anywhere near as much water to keep it saturated.”