Mountain-Prairie Region  Partners for Fish & Wildlife
Big Hole River Watershed
Conservation Strategies


This population of fluvial Arctic grayling is severely impacted by low flows and high temperatures in the Big Hole River in late summer. On August 29,1994, flows in the Big Hole River near Wisdom, Montana, reached 1.9 cubic feet per second (Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has determined that 20 cfs is necessary for minimum living conditions). At the same time, flow measurements taken in irrigation ditches above this site measured 22 cfs. Ranchers divert water from the Big Hole River through mid-July annually for irrigation purposes, and after July 15th, water is diverted mostly for livestock watering. The dewatering of the Big Hole River is believed to be not only impacting Arctic grayling but many other fish and wildlife species. One of the other major threats to the valley is habitat fragmentation from subdivision. Other long-term impacts to fish and wildlife habitat in the Big Hole include removal of woody riparian vegetation, poor grazing management and timber harvest practices, poorly designed irrigation structures, noxious weeds, and mining.

Conservation Strategies

In 1987, the Arctic Grayling Recovery Program (AGRP) was formed in an attempt to preserve the Big Hole River Population as well as restore at least five other grayling populations. This workgroup is made up of individuals from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Trout Unlimited, and other private citizens. AGRP believes that in order to be successful, restoration efforts must include identification of habitat needs of Arctic grayling, grayling habitat protection and restoration, cooperation of private landowners in restoration and management efforts, research into the nature of competition between Arctic grayling and non-native trout and the role of habitat degradation in this relationship, and experimental introductions within the historic range. The Montana Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program signed a cooperative agreement with the Arctic Grayling Recovery Program to provide funding and technical assistance for fluvial Arctic grayling recovery in the upper Missouri River Drainage.

The Big Hole Watershed Committee was formed in 1995 to develop understanding of the river and agreement among individuals and groups with diverse viewpoints on water use and management in the Big Hole Watershed. The group is composed of local ranchers, sportsmen, outfitters, and local, state, and federal government agency representatives. A Partners for Fish and Wildlife representative sits on the committee as a technical advisor. Past and current projects that the Committee is working on include a drought management plan, land use plan, noxious weed control, and river recreation management plan.

Stock tank photoThe Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program has focused most of its efforts in the Big Hole Watershed on installing stockwater wells to replace of the inefficient irrigation ditches (wells use 99.5% less water). These wells allow ranchers to shut off irrigation diversions during critical late summer low flow periods. Critical flows are enhanced by these projects in the middle 5 miles of the Big Hole, as well as benefitting the whole lower river. In addition to drilling wells, the Partners Program has completed several other projects involving riparian restoration, in-stream restoration, and grazing management,

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not have an active easement program in the valley at this time. Other conservation organizations are actively pursuing easements including Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which has an easement on over 10,000 acres, and The Nature Conservancy, which has one easement on almost 13,000 acres. The Montana Land Reliance has several smaller easements in the Wise River area of the valley. There is considerable interest from traditional landowners and new conservation buyers in the valley in conservation easements. The Partners Program will continue to assist landowners in finding agencies or organizations to preserve habitat.

The costs associated with these conservation strategies are:

  • Wetland Restoration - $500/acre
  • Upland/Grassland Enhancement - $10/acre
  • In-stream Restoration - $9.50/linear foot
  • Riparian Restoration - $1.50/linear foot

Future Needs

  • Restore 10,000 acres of wetlands in this Focus Area.
  • Restore or enhance 400,000 acres of grasslands.
  • Restore 750 miles of in-stream and riparian habitats.