Fisheries manager discusses current issues with commissioners

Travis Horton, Region 3 fisheries manager for the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) addressed all county commissioners from areas within Region 3 at an annual overview meeting on Dec. 9 in Whitehall.

Commissioners from Madison, Jefferson, Gallatin, Beaverhead, Broadwater, Park, Lewis and Clark, Silver Bow and Deer Lodge counties were in attendance, along with multiple FWP officials.

Horton focused his presentation to the commissioners around the potential listing of arctic grayling on the Endangered Species List under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“Montana is one of the only states where the fish still survives,” Horton said. “The fish has historically occupied the Missouri River Basin, but the distribution of [graylings] is down to only 4 percent of its historic range.”

The FWP’s official position states that because of the probable impact on land and water management, species management and recreation, the FWP does not want arctic grayling listed under the ESA.

According to Horton, the grayling has been on the candidate list for potential listing as an endangered species for around 20 years, since the fish’s population first started dropping during the 1980s due to extended periods of drought in Montana. By September 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service will make a final decision to either list the fish or completely remove it from the candidate list.

Horton is hopeful that the Montana fisheries division of the FWP has made enough progress in conserving the species that it will stay off the endangered species list.

“We reintroduced the grayling into the Ruby River system in the late 1990s,” Horton explained. “In just the last five years we have noticed they are not reproducing naturally… that is a success story.”

Horton’s fears about the endangered species list are straightforward.

“I do not think there is any mechanism for the federal government to come in and tell Montana how to manage water, but if the grayling is controlled under the ESA there will be lawsuits based on the ESA and water flows.”

Pat Flowers, Region 3 supervisor with the FWP expanded on Horton’s concerns. According to Flowers, Montana landowners have developed good working relationships with FWP officials—creating their own conservation efforts.

“I fear that if [the grayling] gets listed, it will put strain on the current positive relationship between landowners and agencies like the FWP,” he said.

Before Horton concluded the fisheries portion of the presentation, he briefly brought up the issue of exempt wells, stating that the most controversial thing fisheries deal with are water rights issues.

“I am concerned with exempt wells,” Horton said.

Horton’s concern stems mostly from the reality that subdivisions are putting in exempt wells to feed landscaping projects like ponds and waterfalls. According to Horton, once ground water is brought to the surface, it evaporates at a rate of three to five feet per year.

“By punching in all these wells in subdivisions, we are losing water,” he said. “Clearly, we will never keep water from going into someone’s house and serving a true need, but we need to consider if we want to risk our water for a pond.”

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