The Culture of Conservation and the Arctic Grayling: A State Wildlife Management Success Story

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Arctic Grayling – NPS Photo

(July 14, 2018)  Written by Leanne Roulson, GGWC Board Member – The story of Arctic Grayling in Montana is relevant to a current bill in Congress – H.R. 4647, Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. Thirty years ago, the last fluvial population of Arctic Grayling in the lower 48 was at risk of extinction. A community effort at Big Hole helped save it.

Most people in Montana remember 1988 as the summer of the Yellowstone fires. It was an exceptionally dry year and the Big Hole River went completely dry for 40 days near the town of Wisdom, the center of the largest Arctic Grayling (Thymallus arcticus) population remaining in the state at the time. The reach near Wisdom was recognized as the critical for Arctic Grayling year-round as well as being the focus of spawning and rearing (Liknes and Gould 1987, Shepard and Oswald 1989, Byorth 1994).

A dry riverbed. There is nothing like it to focus the attentions of an agricultural community and those tasked with fisheries management. Subsequently, in 1991 a new position was created at Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP), the Arctic Grayling Recovery Biologist as part of a larger, interagency group, the Fluvial Arctic Grayling Workgroup.  Pat Byorth was tasked with leading the recovery of the species which would entail research to determine limiting factors, establish a genetic brood reserve, improve habitat, expand the range, and most importantly, engage the locals, especially ranchers.  Soon after the position was filled, a petition to list Arctic Grayling under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was filed with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) by conservation groups. However, the conservative, independent ranching culture in the Big Hole watershed at the time indicated that listing might actually increase the probability of extinction, because the ranchers owned valid water rights, not subject to ESA regulation and a pitched legal battle would likely rage for years, while grayling suffered. In contrast, the Workgroup recognized that securing local cooperation was critical to the long-term survival of the Arctic Grayling in Montana.

Arctic Grayling have never been common, but the fluvial life form did have an historic range encompassing much of the Missouri upstream of Great Falls, Montana including the Sun, Madison, Big Hole, Beaverhead, and Ruby Rivers. The adfluvial population in Red Rock Lake coexists with Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii), the species with which grayling evolved. In 1991, the Big Hole population was close to being a “last stronghold” for the species in the lower 48. Native glacial-relic, populations of grayling were once found in both Montana and Michigan, but the Michigan populations went extinct by 1948 due to habitat degradation and over fishing (FWP 2018). 

Early in the development of the Arctic Grayling Recovery Program another severe drought occurred. In 1994, the drought threatened to push the fish closer to listing and several public meetings and intensive outreach to local ranchers, who held the veritable keys to the kingdom, water rights, occurred. In an interview with Pat Byorth he related that, “we had to gain the rancher’s trust and help them recognize the grayling were part of their heritage.  We did that by bringing solutions, like hauling stockwater and drilling wells so they could close their ditches. Once they could trust us, the ranchers recognized that grayling were a part of their proud heritage.”.”

Soon after this exchange, Pat said he began to notice a shift in how the Big Hole community viewed the Arctic Grayling. The culture shift is most readily visible now in the way that the Big Hole Watershed Committee ( ), established in 1995, talks about the amount of water in the Big Hole. In the 1990s when instream flows were a relatively new concept, the minimum survival flow for the Big Hole was estimated to be somewhere around 10cfs. For a river of the Big Hole’s size this is truly a minimum flow, but it was better than the dry riverbed in 1988 and 3 cfs in 1994. Now, a few decades on, the watershed committee considers 40 cfs as “getting kind of low” and activates their phone tree to initiate voluntary conservation measures (BHWC 2017).

What makes the difference between reluctantly leaving 3 cfs in a river and worrying about 40 cfs not being enough? How do you get from a meeting where people were calling for the extinction of a fish to the text from the BHWC website?

The Big Hole River Drought Management Plan designates target river flow and temperature conditions for fish health in five river sections of the Big Hole River. The plan includes voluntary conservation targets for all water users, MFWP fishing restriction criteria, and information tools. Conservation actions are designed support the health of the fishery.

The plan outlines voluntary conservation actions and relies on Shared Sacrifice, Shared Success – if all users sacrifice, we can all be successful in protecting the fishery. The plan also designates MFWP fishing restrictions when drought conditions reach critical levels.

This definitely reads like an internally managed plan, not an externally enforced set of rules. Furthermore, Arctic Grayling have been reintroduced to watersheds where they had been extirpated as well as into additional suitable watersheds where they have begun to reproduce and have established new populations in Montana. The petition to list was found to be “not warranted” in 2014 due to the efforts made to recover the species (USFWS 2015).

Why is the story of Arctic Grayling relevant to the passage of Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA H.R. 4647)? Because the plans for Arctic Grayling and many others like it were developed and supported by research, management, and community outreach related to species not yet listed, but recognized as under threat. The added benefit of the Montana success is that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians now have Arctic Grayling brood stock to restore self-sustaining populations in Michigan ( From a policy perspective, the conservation success invigorates others to attempt population restoration elsewhere in the native range.

Grassroots, collaborative management is possible when the State agencies have the funding to evaluate which species are vulnerable and address these vulnerabilities before external, federal enforcement becomes the last resort. The type of work that RAWA would fund would give states the time and resources to manage the fisheries they know best and to work with the communities affected by potential management. Without RAWA, vulnerable species are more likely to progress to more dire conditions where regulatory actions are required, time is short, and litigation and community resistance can impede recovery. RAWA projects can change the culture of a situation from one of conflict to one of conservation if managed well.


BHWC. 2017. Big Hole River drought management plan, version 2016. Retrieved on March 4, 2018.

Byorth, P. A. 1994. Big Hole River Arctic grayling recovery project: annual monitoring report 1993. Submitted to: Fluvial Arctic Grayling Workgroup. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Bozeman.

FWP 2018. Arctic Grayling — Thymallus arcticus.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on March 4, 2018, from

Liknes, G. A. and W. R. Gould. 1987. The distribution, habitat and population characteristics of fluvial Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) in Montana. Northwest Science 61:122-129.

Shepard, B.B., and R.A. Oswald. 1989. Timing, location and population characteristics of spawning Montana Arctic Grayling (Thymallus arcticus montanus (Milner)) in the Big Hole River drainage, 1988. Bozeman, Mont: Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

USFWS. 2015. Endangered species: Fish, Arctic Grayling. Recent Actions and links. US Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie Region. Retrieved on March 4, 2018.