Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Yes, Big Hole River grayling are endangered...

... so let's get 'em listed & protected (if the Big Hole Watershed was effective, we'd see grayling population rising by now--instead, it's still declining).

From the Billings Gazette newspaper:

Protection sought for grayling, wolverine
Advocacy group draws up list of 10 species from around nation
Of The Gazette Staff

The arctic grayling and wolverine, native Montana species, were among the 10 species listed Tuesday as most in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The list was drawn up by a panel of scientists and advocates from an association of environmental groups, the Endangered Species Coalition.

The group criticized the Bush administration for listing few species, despite a backlog of more than 200 species that the group claims are in need of protection.

The criticism comes on the heels of an Interior Department investigation released Monday that found that one of the agency's former officials, Julie MacDonald, frequently bullied career scientists to reduce species protection. MacDonald was deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. She resigned in 2007 after it was found that she had tampered with scientific findings, even removing a California fish from a list of threatened species in order to protect her financial interest in a farm near the fish's habitat.

The species highlighted in the group's report are, in order:

• Pacific walrus.

• Rufa population of red knots, a migrating bird.

• North American wolverine.

• Gunnison sage grouse.

• Montana fluvial (river-dwelling) arctic grayling.

• Island marble butterfly.

• Southern Rockies boreal toad.

• Mason's skypilot, an alpine flowering plant.

• Great white shark.

• Wood turtle.

"Honorable mentions" went to the sand dune lizard, Graham's penstemon (a flowering plant) and the Sonoran Desert population of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.

Montana and Michigan are the only states in the lower 48 that contained river-dwelling grayling, although many are found in Canada and Alaska. The fish is extinct in Michigan. Montana's grayling were once found throughout the upper Missouri River drainage, but now are confined to the upper Big Hole River near Wisdom.

The fish is a species of concern in Montana, so steps have been taken to protect its last stronghold. It was denied endangered-species status in 2007. A suit has been filed to overturn the decision.

"With the end of the Bush administration, the grayling may actually have a chance to finally get the protection it deserves," Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement.

The wolverine faces much the same situation. The animal, which once ranged across northern New England, the upper Midwest, the Rockies and West Coast, is now limited to Montana, Idaho and Wyoming and a small portion of the Cascades in Washington. The animal was denied endangered-species protection this year. The species can still be trapped in Montana.

In September, 10 conservation organizations filed suit challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision not to protect wolverines in the lower 48. The groups claim that habitat fragmentation and climate change threaten the animals' continued survival in the Western United States.

"All of the species nominated for this report - and hundreds of others - need our help to avoid extinction, even though they are not yet protected by the Endangered Species Act," said Derek Goldman, Northern Rockies representative for the Endangered Species Coalition.

The coalition released its report just days after the Bush administration enacted a rule that would allow government agencies to decide for themselves whether a proposed project threatens protected species, instead of waiting for a review by scientists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Contact Brett French at or at 657-1387.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Big Hole Watershed Committee: killing fluvial Arctic grayling

Today's Grayling Survival Index = - 55. River flows at Wisdom are far below the lower inflection point of 60 cubic feet per second--the minimum flow needed to maintain the population. Equally bad, daytime water temperatures are well over 70 deg F--a lethal temperature for grayling.

In bars around the Big Hole River, the topic of low water in the river comes up a lot. When the bar patrons include a lot of anglers and guides, usually someone will say something like, "Yeah, them ranchers take all the water they can and pull the river down as much as possible. The sooner grayling become totally extinct, the sooner ranchers don't have to worry about an Endangered Species Act listing any longer..."

While I can't buy into cynicism that runs quite that deep, there is no doubt that the Big Hole Watershed Committee is almost totally ineffective when it comes to keeping any water in the upper river around Wisdom, Montana--critical habitat for the last self-sustaining population of native fluvial Arctic grayilng in the lower 48states.

So much for "voluntary" cooperation and the millions of dollars in federal money that the Big Hole Watershed Committee has received through earmark appropriations.

Let's hope that Senator Jon Testor (D-MT) doesn't become co-opted by the Big Hole Watershed Committee, and end up filling the role of pork-barrel-shoveller that former Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) filled.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Big Hole Watershed Committee: Big Hole River grayling survival threatened

Today's Grayling Survival Index = -5
A negative index means there is not enough water to insure minimal survival. Too much water is being used by ranchers to grow hay.

This has been a good water year. Not an exceptional year such as 2006-07, but it certainly hits the long-term average. Spring was significantly wetter and cooler than average, which meant that there was far more snowpack to feed summer flows.

Despite this, the Big Hole River in the Wisdom reach -- a section of the river that is critical for fluvial Arctic grayling survival -- has dipped below 60 cubic feet per second. 60 cfs is the lower wetted perimeter, the minium flow needed (according to fisheries biologists) to maintain grayling populations. Below 60 cfs, mortality becomes high. Fish die.

What is the Big Hole Watershed Committee's problem, if even in a good water year, it cannot maintain minimum flows for our endangered fluvial Arctic grayling?

You can see from the hydrograph (below) that haying ended lasted week, and as the irrigation ditches were opened back up, river flows sank. Yesterday's big rainstorm helped a little, but not enough. True conservation is the only thing that will help.

Fact is, more and more hay meadows and pastures have been irrigated in recent years. Furthermore, hay meadow irrigation has increasingly shifted over to pasture irrigation. Hay irrigation largely ceases after the hay is cut. Pasture irrigation, however, requires water every day, all summer long. When you add global warming to this equation, it means that fluvial Arctic grayling in the Big Hole River are probably doomed.


EXPLANATION OF THE GRAYLING SURVIVAL INDEX:Less than 0 means a loss of grayling; 0 means minimum sustainable level; 100 means maximum survival. For this blog, the flow of the Big Hole River at Wisdom, Montana, provides an index of how well the Big Hole Watershed Committee is doing in its efforts toward water conservation and grayling restoration.

The Watershed Committee is doing a lousy job. According to fisheries biologists, the upper wetted perimeter at Wisdom is 160 cfs (cubic feet per second). The lower wetted perimeter is 60 cfs. The minimum "survival flow" is 20 cfs. This "survival flow" is not scientifically based, but it is the flow level that fisheries biologists "feel" allows grayling the ability to escape warm water and to seek cold water refugia (tributary streams).

Criteria for grayling survival index ratings:
* At 160 cfs, grayling recruitment and survival is rated at 100. At this level, the streambed is fully wetted or bank-full. This level allows grayling the maximum use of stream "pasture" for foraging, hiding, spawning, etc. This level maximizes grayling recovery.
* At 60 cfs, grayling recruitment and survival is rated at 0. At this level, the streambed is minimally wetted. This level allows grayling to maintain their population. This level does not aid in the recovery or increase of the grayling population. At best, this level might maintain the current population level. Below this level, the streambed rapidly becomes dry and thus barren of aquatic life.
* At 20 cfs, grayling recruitment and survival will be rated at -100. At this level, some grayling will be able to move to cold water refugia (tributaries), but many will perish due to lack of cover, exposure to predators (such as pelicans), and high water temperatures.

For stream flows above 60 cfs, the grayling survival index = y = mx + b = x - 60. For stream flows below 60 cfs, the grayling survival index = y = mx + b = 2.5x - 150. Thus, today's grayling survival index = 2.5(19) - 150) = -102.5.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

2008: A Good Water Year, But Can the Big Hole Watershed Committee Find Success?

2008 has been a good water year in the Big Hole River watershed, so far.

The question is, will the Big Hole Watershed Committee succeed even in this wet year?

It's doubtful. Very doubtful.

Here is the hydrograph for this year (2008), from 01 May through 24 June:

Note that there have been several peaks well over 1,000 cfs, though flows never exceeded 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Currently, end-of-June flows are running 300 to 400 cfs.

Now, here is the hydrograph for 1997, from 01 May through 30 July:

Note that there was a sustained flow for several weeks that exceeded 2,000 cfs and even approached 4,000 cfs. 1997 was a MUCH bigger spring run-off year than 2008!

And yet, even with all that water in 1997, the Big Hole Watershed Committee could barely sustain survival flows over 60 cfs. Remember that 60 cfs is the "lower wetted perimeter" -- the minimum level for reasonable fish survival. Below this point, the carrying capacity of the stream diminishes rapidly, and thus the fish population plummets. Standing crop -- i.e. the number of living fish -- is maximized at the upper wetted perimeter. For the Wisdom reach of the Big Hole River, that means that the optimal flow is 160 cfs or higher.

Here is the hydrograph for 1997, 01 July through 30 Sept:

Note that in late August flows rapidly dipped below the upper wetted perimeter of 160 cfs, and hovered between 60 and 100 cfs for many weeks. Not bad, but not enough to optimize the recovery of fluvial Arctic grayling.

What does this portend for 2008? Well, considering that 1997 spring flows were about double the flows we have seen this year, we can probably expect late summer flows to decline sooner and go lower.

In other words, I hope that the Big Hole Watershed Committee is not falling into complacency merely because we have had a more-or-less long term average year in terms of spring flows. Sadly, I expect the Watershed Committee will fail to maintain flows at the 60 cfs minimum survival level. As usual, the committee's efforts will be too little, too late; a day late and a dollar short; and full of excuses about why grayling just have to die and creep ever closer toward extinction.

Big Hole Watershed Committee, please prove me wrong!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Montana's Grayling Restoration Workgroup: 2008 Annual Meeting

On Tuesday, 18 March 2008, I squeezed into into a room full of folks at the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks headquarters in Bozeman for the annual meeting of the Grayling Restoration Workgroup. [For three substantial highlights of this meeting, scroll down to the bold headings below.]

Also know as the "annual grayling meeting and sandwich eating club," the recovery program began in 1987 as a response to the decline of fluvial Arctic grayling in the Big Hole River. Though technically a 501(c)3 organization coordinated by Buddy Drake, the group serves to coordinate the efforts of Montana FWP and the US Fish & Wildlife Service and to communicate these efforts to the wider environmental community.

I've been attending the annual meeting off and on since the late 1990s. For many years, it seemed that the agency biologists got together and did a lot of hand-wringing, but nothing much ever came out of it. Yes, there were helter-skelter activities such as trying to reintroduce hatchery grayling into degraded, warm, and dewatered rivers such as the Beaverhead and Jefferson--but most of the agency administrators seemed to be there just for the free sandwiches. It took until 2002 for the group to even begin to address degraded habitat in the upper Big Hole--something that everyone knew was a problem at least by the early 1990s.

Things have changed, somewhat. The meeting consists of a lot more presentations (22 in 8 hours!) and a lot less discussion. While it is good that a broader range of folks -- presenters included representatives from The Nature Conservancy and NRCS -- make presentations (it used to be just agency biologists), letting the agenda get swamped by too many low-content presentations means that substantial discussion cannot occur. For example, various National Park Service folks made three interminable presentations about a potential grayling restoration project in Yellowstone; these could easily have been condensed into a single 10 minute presentation. Still, I can understand why NPS was given such a broad slot, since until now the Park has been opposed to native fish restoration.

For the most part, the meeting was full of bad news: grayling continue to decline in the Big Hole River watershed. Although a lot of work is going into the Conservation Candidate Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs), no postive population response is predicted until years 2011-2012. With upper river flows at or above minimal targets needed for graylng sustainability just 15% or so of the time in summer and fall, I wouldn't be too optimistic about grayling populations three or four years from now.

There were three presentations of special interest:

One: Habitat Restoration Does Not Help Fish When There is No Water in the Restored Stream
Yep, we're talking about the Big Hole Watershed Committee's highly touted "Rock Creek Reconnection Project." The WC invested about $100,000 on stream restoration, willow planting, and riparian fencing (not to mention overhead and indirects)--with much of the funding coming from the Orvis Company and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. How sad, to see a photograph of a dry streambed for this "investment." This is a problem that critics of the WC have pointed out time and time again: unless and until the committee is able to assure minimal instream flows, grayling will continue to decline. Solution: quit pretending ranchers are going to voluntarily give up enough water, and either go after it legally (Public Trust Doctrine) or start leasing it.

Two: There is a Small but Hopeful Sign that Grayling are Colonizing the Upper Ruby River Watershed
The use of Remote Site Incubators to hatch grayling eggs on-site in the Upper Ruby seems to be panning out. Last year, a number of 2+ year old Arctic grayling turned up in stream and angler creel surveys. The big test: these fish should spawn this spring. Note that the eggs came from Big Hole grayling broodstock that are held in the Axoltl Lakes and Ted Turner rearing ponds, so if there has not been too much genetic drift or bottlenecking, then this could be a healthy future population.

Three: The US Fish & Wildlife Decision Not to List Big Hole Grayling was Stupid and Wrong
Yeah, we all knew this was true. But just the same, it feels good to be vindicated once in awhile. Soon-to-be published genetic data indicates that Big Hole River grayling are genetically distinct from fluvial populations in Canada and lake dwelling/adfluvial populations in Montana. These results clearly contravene the recent US FWS service decision to revoke Distinct Population Segment status for Big Hole grayling.

Well, the sandwiches were tasty.