The Upper Big Hole River is home to Arctic grayling, a native salmonid species. The Upper Big Hole was the last location in the lower 48 states to host a naturally producing population of fluvial Arctic grayling. Grayling historically occupied much of the Upper Missouri to Great Falls, Montana. Changes in habitat resulting from development, large dams, and mining beginning in the late 1880’s caused the fish to decline dramatically. In the Big Hole, their decline was exacerbated by drought in the 1980’s causing the fish to drop to dangerously low populations.

In 2009, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in partnership with United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) established the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) program. This put into place a strategic plan for recovering the Big Hole River Arctic grayling as well as providing legal protections for landowners who enroll and participate in the CCAA. The CCAA was a necessary step in recovering the Arctic grayling in the Big Hole because grayling live 90% on private lands, rendering private landowner cooperation absolutely essential.

The CCAA is managed by a team of committed agency members:

  • Jarrett Payne, Arctic Grayling Recovery Biologist/Riparian Ecologist, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
  • Jim Magee, Partners Program, US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Matt Norberg, Hydrologist, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation
  • Other agency members were instrumental in developing and managing the CCAA, but have since moved on to new duties and positions. They include:
    • Emma Cayer, Arctic Grayling Recovery Biologist, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks
    • Mike Roberts, Hydrologist, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation
    • Kyle Tackett, District Conservationist, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Each landowner enrolled in the CCAA program signs on to a site-specific plan for their property developed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the landowner that needs to be followed in order to receive legal protection. Plans are extensive and typically include a task list for riparian management plans, riparian and vegetation recovery, weed treatment, irrigation improvement, fish passage, and flow maintenance plans. Each landowner plan is monitored and results are reported annually.

The CCAA program is a 20 year agreement and was put in place as a result of the USFWS investigation of the Arctic grayling as a Candidate for Endangered Species listing, to which the fish was added as a candidate in 1991.

Citing the extensive efforts and improvements for conservation specifically targeting the Arctic grayling as well as increasing populations, the USFWS determined in 2014 that the Artic grayling was not warranted as a candidate for Endangered Species Act listing. The announcement was made August 19, 2014. Not everyone agrees with the USFWS decision. In 2015, a lawsuit was filed suing the USFWS, disagreeing with their decision to not list the fish under the Endangered Species Act, the outcome of which has not yet been resolved.

Working together, the CCAA program has made impressive improvements. As of 2016, they have enrolled 32 landowners and 148,326 acres in the CCAA program, covering 214 miles of stream or river. They maintain that the most important factor in Arctic grayling recovery is the people – the folks who are employed to work on the recovery, the representatives of those who believe in the recovery, and most importantly – the landowners.

For more information:

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Arctic Grayling Recovery Information:

Arctic Grayling Recovery Program: – Established in 1990, this group coordinates Arctic grayling recovery in Montana.

US Fish and Wildlife Service – Arctic grayling status: