Mountain-Prairie Region


Feature News Release

No. 1 January, 2000
134 Union Blvd., Lakewood, CO 80228 Contact: Karen Miranda Gleason (303) 236-7905

Fish Tales:  Good News About Native Fish

Grayling in Montana Rivers
A Pretty Fish on
the Rebound

This feature news release is the first in a series of "Fish Tales" communicating success stories about native fish conservation in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Mountain-Prairie Region, which includes the States of Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. Articles may be used and published freely, in whole or in part. Further information on this and other related topics can be obtained from the contact(s) listed above. 

Once an abundant source of enjoyment for fly fisherman, this attractive cousin of the trout freely swam in the Missouri River above Great Falls, Montana. With a large dorsal fin spotted in red or purple, pelvic fins striped orange or pink, and looking more like its whitefish cousin than trout, the arctic grayling is one of the most beautiful fish in the salmonid family.

While the primarily lake-dwelling arctic grayling (called adfluvial) is more prevalent and has been introduced in lakes as far south as Arizona, the more rare fluvial arctic grayling inhabits only clear, northern streams and does not migrate to lakes. The numbers of these river-dwelling grayling declined in the United States by the 1980's to only one remaining native population.

The wild fluvial grayling, stressed by competition with non-native fish, drought, and competing uses of river water, managed to maintain a foothold in the Big Hole River in southwestern Montana. Outfitters and guides say that clients enjoy coming to the Big Hole because they can fish for the catch-and-release grayling, along with the non-native brown, brook and rainbow trout that may compete with grayling.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, other federal land managers, and Montana Power became aware of this drastic decline, they formed a working group with state universities to identify the threats to this imperiled species and develop a plan to restore the population.

The Service placed the fluvial arctic grayling on its "candidate" list, identifying it as a species in trouble and one that was at risk of becoming threatened or endangered in the future.

"The partners got started on conservation efforts as soon as people realized the population was in trouble," said Lori Nordstrom, biologist for the Service's office in Helena. "That's a big part of why our cooperative efforts have been successful."

One of the first steps taken was a joint effort by the Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks beginning in 1988 to gather grayling eggs from the remaining population, with plans to provide a safety net of hatchery-raised brood stock in case the fish disappeared in the wild. Eggs were collected for another 3 years.

"We could only collect eggs from 3 or 4 fish a year, because the numbers were so low," said Pat Dwyer, fish biologist for the Service's Fish Technology Center in Bozeman, which developed the brood stock. "It was a difficult process as well, finding fish at the right time in the spring, when it's usually raining and snowing, when they're ripe for spawning."

It took until the mid-1990's to develop a genetically viable brood stock at the Center, which now maintains the stock at about 200 fish, with another 500 fish as future replacements. In 1990, the State of Montana began a simultaneous effort by collecting grayling eggs from the Center stock, and growing fish to be stocked in the wild.

"The fluvial grayling population was in dire straits when we started this project," said Dwyer. "The State of Montana has been very active in introducing grayling, and through a lot of effort has increased the population in the Big Hole River significantly." The number of grayling in the river has more than tripled from its low point to the present.

Since the project began, over 3,000 fluvial grayling have been stocked from the Center. Last Spring, the Center moved some of its grayling to a private lake owned by billionaire Ted Turner, to act as a wild brood stock; this stock will be ready to spawn in 2-3 years.

Other efforts by private property owners and livestock ranchers in the area have been essential to the fish's success story. At the request of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks during a serious drought in 1994, and with the help of wells drilled by the State and the Service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, many ranchers drawing water from the Big Hole River voluntarily closed their irrigation canals to protect the fish, drawing ground water instead.

Last summer, the Partners program provided water storage tanks for the ranchers, to further aid their efforts. Now, during drought conditions and peak use periods in July and August, the ranchers can easily draw and store as much water as they need. As a result, enough water remains in the Big Hole River for grayling to survive.

Landowners and fishermen in the Big Hole drainage have also formed the Big Hole Watershed Committee and the Big Hole River Foundation to work on conserving grayling and their habitat, to help prevent the species from ever becoming threatened or endangered. The Committee instituted a drought management plan for the river to further protect these important waters for the fish and other benefits.

"Landowners have been extremely cooperative, and we couldn't have stabilized the population without them," added Nordstrom.

The local chapter of Trout Unlimited has also been very active in this effort. In addition, other non-profit agencies have been raising money for this effort -- most recently through the sale of a poster by Montana artist Monte Dolack, depicting a grayling in the Big Hole River. Other land management agencies regularly pitch in funds for grayling conservation.

Reestablishing the grayling into other drainages that were part of its historic native range has also been a success story for the species. Through an interagency restoration plan spearheaded by the Fluvial Arctic Grayling Workgroup and finalized in 1995, research began to assess current habitat conditions in rivers within the grayling's native range. Within the past 2 years, thousands of fluvial grayling have been reintroduced into rivers where the fish and their offspring have the best chance of long-term viability. Reintroduction areas include the Beaver Head River, Ruby River, north and south forks of the Sun River, and headwaters of the Missouri River. Biologists are continuing these efforts, with the goal of establishing self-sustaining populations.

"It's been a huge step," said Nordstrom. "We're not out of the woods yet, but we're well on our way."

The U..S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the principal Federal agency responsible for conserving, protecting, and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. The Service manages the 93-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System comprised of more than 500 national wildlife refuges, thousands of small wetlands, and other special management areas. It also operates 66 national fish hatcheries, 64 fish and wildlife management assistance offices and 78 ecological services field stations. The agency enforces Federal wildlife laws, administers the Endangered Species Act, manages migratory bird populations, restores nationally significant fisheries, conserves and restores wildlife habitat such as wetlands, and helps State, Tribal, and foreign governments with their conservation efforts. It also oversees the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of dollars in excise taxes on fishing and hunting equipment to state wildlife agencies.

Conserving the Nature of America

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