Mourning in Montana: How the state failed the fluvial arctic grayling

Grayling is a town in northern Michigan that sits on the Au Sable River not far from Henry Ford’s original fishing lodge. It’s named after a fish that once swam in the clear and cold waters beneath a primeval forest of white pines. The pines were cut down more than a century ago and sediment flowed into the rivers, which were slowed by dams and warmed by the loss of the shade trees. And then the grayling disappeared.

On Wednesday, May 16, in Divide, Montana, the Grayling Restoration Association held a funeral for Montana’s grayling. Sad to say, we are about to follow in the footsteps of Michigan’s environmental infamy and lose the last population of wild, fluvial arctic grayling in the Lower 48.

Thirty-two years ago, I stood in the clear waters of the Big Hole River near the aptly-named town of Wisdom, and caught grayling after grayling. The beautiful, silvery fish, easily identifiable by a huge dorsal fin, are suckers for a dry fly. Back then, just as they once had in Michigan, no one worried much about the grayling’s future. They were feisty competitors in their watery world, not particularly sought after by piscivores, and there were lots of them.

A mere 10 years later, I sat as the chair of Montana’s first Drought Task Force and heard disparaging news of our great rivers being dewatered as a combination of low rainfall, hot temperatures and unrelenting irrigation demand turned tributaries and mainstreams into warm pools connected by trickles of water—or worse, simply barren, dried stretches of what was once a waterway teeming with life.

Suddenly, the arctic grayling reappeared in my life. Not on the end of a fly line, but at the end of its own line, facing an uncertain future. As tributaries were dammed, diverted and dewatered the populations of grayling, which spawn in the tiniest of feeder streams, came crashing down. The estimated numbers of remaining grayling plummeted as the drought persisted, and by 1988 national press was covering the impacts to Montana’s world-famous rivers and fisheries as wildfires raged across Yellowstone.

Like so many other things in our nation, we tend to respond only when faced with tragedy. Rather than be proactive, we are a reactive society—and all too often our reactions are far too slow. We have known for some time that Montana’s snowpack and rainfall have been diminishing as the temperatures climb higher every year. Winter comes later and doesn’t get as cold, spring comes earlier and warms more quickly than in the past, and summer’s dry, raging heat now routinely hits triple digits.

The evidence is all around us, from Glacier National Park’s disappearing ice fields to our mountains covered with dead and dying trees that have fallen victim to bark beetles that once froze in the sub-zero of midwinter, but now survive to attack the drought-stricken forests in ever-increasing numbers.

The grayling, in many ways, is the canary in the coalmine of cold water fish. Just as pollution and loss of habitat wiped them out in Michigan so long ago, drought and irrigation dewatering appeared likely to wipe out the tiny remaining population in Montana by 1990.

Reacting with almost glacial speed, the state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) barely moved when the 1989 Legislature gave them both the legal authority and, via the River Restoration Program, the funding to lease water for instream flows to keep the grayling alive. Oh, whined the department, the process is so complicated, it takes so long, we don’t want to do it—and they didn’t.

Pressed by the unrelenting drought, the ranchers of the Upper Big Hole irrigated their fields earlier and longer, living up to their “Land of Ten Thousand Haystacks” reputation, but turning the pages quickly to the last chapter for the fluvial artic grayling.

By the mid-’90s, disappointed and angered at the lack of progress in stabilizing the dwindling grayling population, the Legislature massively increased available funding for leasing water for spawning streams via the new Future Fisheries Improvement Act. With more than a million dollars a year, the money was there to pay for the water to keep the grayling alive.

Truth be told, there were many commendable efforts in this regard. The Big Hole water users formed a watershed advisory group to attempt to work out the supply and demand problems between the needs of traditional agriculture and basic instream flow requirements for the grayling. Wells were drilled to supply stockwater and irrigation scheduling was adjusted so some small flows could be left trickling down the grayling spawning streams in an attempt to keep the fry alive until they were large enough to migrate to the mainstream.

But it was too little, too late. As global warming’s intensity increased, the number of grayling surviving to spawning age decreased. Even worse, in the last few years the amount of money once dedicated to the programs that could lease water for instream flows has been cut. Contrary to its big talk about the “restoration economy,” the Schweitzer administration only budgeted a fraction of the funding available to save the grayling under Racicot and Martz.

At the end of April, while the few remaining grayling attempted to spawn, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that the Big Hole grayling are no longer a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, thus eliminating the one last chance to employ a federal law with the power to save Montana’s fluvial arctic grayling.

Our nation has turned its back and our state has fallen short of both its constitutional and public trust responsibilities. And now, to our shame, Montana’s latest victim of global warming and bureaucratic intransigence is likely to be the Big Hole’s fluvial arctic grayling. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last.

You can contact the Grayling Restoration Association via Pat Munday at 782-3712 or

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent.


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