The Fluvial Arctic Grayling: Communication, Cooperation, and Conservation in Beaverhead County

A Discussion with Jim Magee by Jackie Bussjaeger, University of Montana graduate student

When the Corps of Discovery passed through Montana in 1805 Capt. Meriwether Lewis described a “new kind of white or silvery trout,”—the Arctic grayling, a member of the salmon family that depends on clean, cold-water streams. Montana is now the only place in the lower 48 states with native populations of fluvial (river-dwelling) Arctic grayling. Overtime, its historic range has been drastically reduced due to habitat loss, fragmentation, overharvest, nonnative species, and climate changes.

Jim Magee, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, works with ranchers in the Big Hole Watershed to help create solutions that work best for them and the survival of this unique fish. While grayling have been on and off the Endangered Species candidate list since 1990 the USFWS will again consider its status in July 2020. In the Upper Big Hole Watershed 90% of the grayling habitat is on private lands. Without engaging landowners, conservation efforts are very limited.

Jim Magee

Magee relates, “If you’re a rancher in the Big Hole and there is a chance of grayling being listed, you’re worried. You’re worried about impacts of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on your ability to run a ranch.”

As part of the solution, Magee works with an Agency team made up of the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, the Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the Natural Resources Conservation Services to coordinate the Big Hole Arctic Grayling Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) Program. The program encourages private landowners to implement site specific conservation activities that address the threats to grayling on their property; in exchange, they will not be subject to additional restrictions if the species becomes listed under the ESA. “It takes the unknown out of the listing,” Magee said. “It gives the ranchers peace of mind.”

Since 2006, thirty-three private landowners in the upper Big Hole watershed have enrolled in the program and incorporated improvements such as: installing fish ladders to improve habitat connectivity, fencing riparian areas, improving stream flow, and even changing how they feed their cattle. “It’s been a very successful program,” Magee said. “Conservation for grayling is a community effort. Each landowner is doing their part and cumulatively all those efforts have made a big difference for Arctic grayling and the health of the entire watershed.

Arctic Grayling

“If we’re asking ranchers to do something that is going to cut into their bottom line, to be able to make a living, they’re not going to be interested,” Magee explained. “So, we said, we’re not going to hurt your productivity. In fact, we’ll bring in resources to help, especially with infrastructure.”

The CCAA can provide infrastructure that ranchers need to control and accurately measure water diverted for irrigation. The program maintains a gauging system that allows participants to determine how much water they put back into the streams to meet biologically determined flow targets. “Grayling are a symbol of the health of the whole ecosystem. If we are taking care of a grayling, we are taking care of nature,” Magee said. “Whether it’s the really charismatic species that people like to work on, or a lesser known mussel, or sucker, they all have an important niche in that whole ecosystem and that’s what makes it work. When you remove one of those niches, something is going to change.”

Alongside grayling, Magee also works with private landowners to create protection agreements for cutthroat trout, trumpeter swans, sage grouse, and grizzly bears.

“I work on fish and wildlife and I love it, and I ask myself what can I do to make sure we conserve those values.” Magee said. “It’s working with the community; making sure that we appreciate how important economically stable and healthy landscapes are to those values. If we want open spaces, which are so important to wildlife, we have to have those large, working landscapes.”