©2002 Cascadia Times
10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry
7 Big Hole River
to fluvial Arctic grayling
Big Hole River is home to a small fish that is common
in Canada and Alaska, but lives nowhere else in
the lower 48 states: the fluvial Arctic grayling
(fluvial means river-dwelling). Drought, grazing
and water withdrawals have contributed to the grayling's
near demise in the Big Hole.
Arctic grayling live here only because the river
has no dams, says Bruce Farling of Montana Trout
Unlimited. The group's campaign in 1965 to stop
a dam preserved a river some say is the prettiest
in the west. This year the Bureau of Land Management
recommended protecting two stretches of the Big
Hole as Wild and Scenic.
its survival in the Big Hole depends on healthy
river flows. For generations water has been diverted
from the river for irrigation and stock watering.
Low river flows kill grayling by stranding eggs
or young fish, making it easier for predators to
feed on ones that are concentrated in the remaining
water. Grayling also become stranded in irrigation
ditches and die when the headgates are closed before
the fish return to the river. Diversions cause higher
water temperatures that can be lethal to fish.
Big Hole River flows from the Bitterroot Range through
150 miles of high alpine valleys, steep canyons
and broad plains in the southwest corner of Montana,
until it finally joins two other rivers to form
the Jefferson River. Fur trappers in the early 1800's
told of a valley with thousands of acres covered
with riparian shrubs and beaver dams. Since then
the river has been scarred with the removal of woody
riparian vegetation, overgrazing, poorly designed
irrigation structures, logging, alien weeds, and
mining. The valley bottom is mostly privately owned
by large intact cattle ranches and is managed mostly
for hay production and livestock grazing. Development
pressures are increasing steadily.
grayling once ranged east to Michigan, but no more.
The numbers of grayling declined in the United States
by the 1980's to this one remaining native population.
And they are in serious trouble here. In 1999, biologists
counted 35 adult graylings per mile, down from 97
per mile in 1997.
fear the grayling's unique gene pool could be lost.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the grayling's
listing as a protected species is warranted but
precluded by the efforts of ranchers and others
to protect it.
diversions in August and September 1988 were so
extreme that no flow was recorded at the U.S. Geological
Survey (USGS) gaging station at the town of Wisdom.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has determined
that a minimum of 20 cubic feet per second is necessary
for the grayling to survive.
minimum flows have not been met at times this summer,
reaching a low of just 6 cfs. Biologists say maintaining
a 60 cfs flow throughout the river system are needed
to sustain a healthy population of grayling in the
response to these extremely low flows, a number
of Big Hole ranchers voluntarily reduced the amount
of water they were diverting, and some ranchers
agreed to temporarily close their ditches if alternate
stock water was supplied.
"While low flows continue to be a concern
in the Big Hole basin, flows have improved dramatically
due to our Drought Management Planm," says
Randy Smith, chairman of the Big Hole Watershed
Committee. "Despite low snowpack and drought
conditions during the past four years, our local
efforts have maintained flows through much of the
summer and avoided a fish kill. The success of the
Drought Management Plan is apparent when comparing
flows from similar drought years before our community
Smith provided data showing the number of days
with low flows has decreased since 1998. In 1998,
there were 65 days of flows less than 10 cfs, compared
with 40 days in 2001.
Despite the apparent improvement, state fisheries
biologists say the grayling is still in enough danger
that they have been attempting to transplant the
fish into four other rivers in Montana. None of
these efforts have been deemed a success yet.
The state has also built 19 new water projects
to help provide alternative sources of water for
the ranchers. These projects have tapped wells or
springs away from the river. Future efforts will
address riparian damage.
"To date, we have constructed 19 wells or
springs for landowners," "There are certain
reaches that are in need of riparian enhancement,"
says Jim Magee, a fisheries biologist with Montana
Fish Wildlife and Parks. "While we have been
concentrating on flows, riparian enhancement projects
are on our agenda."
Grazing damage is also a concern to environmentalists.
"There are parts of the main stem where the
riparian has been beat up by overgrazing,"
says Farling. "We have an overwidened channel
where it takes more water to provide cover for the