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On Monday, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released an environmental assessment decision notice for the Southwest Montana Arctic Grayling Reintroduction project - a plan aimed at bringing the rare fish back into the Madison drainage, along with other lakes and rivers, over the course of a 10-year period.
Arctic grayling have been reported to live in Madison River drainage for quite time; however, populations within the area have greatly declined since the mid '80s. Personal accounts of anglers catching grayling in large numbers were reported in the early 1900s. The environmental assessment stated grayling were abundantly caught up until 1983, when the Ennis Reservoir was significantly drawn down for aquatic vegetation control.
Even though the rare fish continues to be caught in the Madison River, numbers have dropped significantly.
In an attempt to restore grayling populations within the Madison drainage, FWP is moving forward with a 10-year reintroduction project.
"They're a unique critter and this is the only place left in the Lower 48 where you can find them," FWP fisheries manager Travis Horton said. "We want them to stick around as long as they can."
Horton says the aim of the project is to get the population back to a level that's self-sustaining, while also trying to prevent the fish from becoming endangered species.
"We're certainly trying to keep them off the list," Horton said. "We don't know if the program will have any effect.
"If we can get a population established, it would be a huge step forward."
The cause for the decline in Arctic grayling is unknown, but possible factors include the influence of non-native trout, habitat changes and low numbers of spawning fish.
The project aims to use remote site incubators in tributaries of the Madison River to reintroduce the fish. Eyed eggs would be hatched throughout a three-to-five year period. Horton says the incubators will likely be installed sometime in May. Possible locations for the RSIs include Odell Creek, the South Fork of the Madison and West Fork of the Madison.
"We threw out the South Fork, West Fork and Odell Creek as options," Horton said. "We're looking for other tributaries that would be a suitable habitat."
Each RSI can hold 750 to 1,000 eggs, with a total of approximately 60,000 to 100,000 eggs being released into the drainage annually. Horton says the fish will have a 90 percent mortality rate, so between 6,000 and 10,000 Arctic grayling would be reintroduced each year.
Some people voiced concern about suppression or removal of rainbow and brown trout from the Madison between Hebgen and Ennis dams during FWP's public comment period, but Horton says anglers should not worry about future fishing on the river.
"We're not going to manipulate any fisheries in Montana," he said. "This will not be the end of fishing on the Madison."
Other comments suggested directing the funds for the Madison drainage project to the Big Hole drainage project, which has already seen success with reintroducing Arctic grayling.
Blue Ribbon Flies owner Craig Mathews says the reintroduction would be a great addition to angling opportunities on the Madison, but he has his reservations about the project being a success. Mathews remembers an attempted reintroduction of Arctic grayling in the Gallatin River more than 10 years ago, but the project was a failure.
"It would be cool if it would happen, but I'm a little suspect," Mathews said. "I'm a little leery that there will not be enough money allocated to the program to make it. Maybe they should look at private funding or assistance with this; if you invest well in a fishery, it will come back a hundredfold to the state. They need to have a big plan with the Madison. "
Arrick's Fly Shop owner Arrick Swanson says he supports reintroducing Arctic grayling back into parts of the Madison River. But he says he would be against it if it came at the high price of using the poison rotenone, or through instituting a mass killing of fish species such as cutthroat in the Red Rocks area. FWP's plan doesn't call for such methods.
"Destroying a healthy ecosystem and endangering other wildlife and humans by using poison like in Grayling Creek, just because managers have decided to turn back the clock to a particular time in history, is a costly answer," Swanson said. "All species, including us, will pay for it in some way down the road."
If the project is a success, Mathews says it will be a big attraction and would bring more anglers to the area to fish for the rare species.
"It would be huge," he said. "It would be just like west slope cutthroat; people come here to catch native fish."
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