Summer 2002

The Big Dry

Cows plus drought equals misery for rivers in the West

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

1. Bear River -- Utah, Wyoming, Idaho

2. Salmon River -- Idaho

3. Gila River -- New Mexico, Arizona

4. John Day River -- Oregon

5. Owyhee River -- Oregon, Nevada, Idaho

6. Sweetwater River -- Wyoming

7. Big Hole River -- Montana

8. Little Humboldt River -- Nevada

9. Yampa River -- Colorado

10. Kern River -- California

Buyout or Bailout?

A Killing in the Klamath

2002 Cascadia Times

Top 10 western rivers trampled by the livestock industry

7 Big Hole River - Montana


Ode to fluvial Arctic grayling

The 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.

Fluvial 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.

But 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Biologists 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.

Irrigation 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.

Those 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 Big Hole.

In 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 effort."

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 fish."