Effort on to return arctic grayling to state

Mankind wielded all three prongs of the spear that killed Michigan’s arctic grayling – we caught too many, we damaged their watery home and we imported invasive species to compete with them.

Now we’ve undertaken the difficult, but worthy, quest to restore the native Michigander to its rightful place in our streams.

But the effort isn’t simple – we’ve failed several times to bring the species back to the Wolverine State. Multiple attempts to restock rivers with the fish fell flat – stretching along a timeline from 1877, when fish from northern Michigan were transplanted to downstate waters, through 1991, when fingerlings were released in multiple rivers and lakes across the state.

A federal grant given to the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians of Manistee will help fund another effort that may have a better chance at success because of more thorough research and specialized introduction methods.

Efforts to restore the grayling to Michigan are possible because similar fish still exist elsewhere. Unlike the passenger pigeon, the grayling hasn’t been eliminated from the planet. In the continental U.S., grayling are native only to Michigan and Montana. The last glacial period isolated the fish in the two locations, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The grayling was wildly popular with sport fishermen in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They can grow to 30 inches long, are an interesting blue hue and sport flashy dorsal fins. And they apparently were easy prey for sportfishers. Some said it was possible to catch three grayling with a single cast – possibly with three hooks attached to a single line.

The community of Grayling was named for the fish.

Scientists say the arctic grayling disappeared because of a combination of overfishing, habitat damage and competition from non-native brown and rainbow trout.

Reintroduction efforts through the last century have failed, at least in part because we didn’t understand that they can live only in a very particular ecosystem. Man’s hand changed rivers across the state. Grayling no longer can survive in their original waters, which have been modified by a long history of logging and development.

Now the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is ramping up for another run at returning the fish to Michigan streams. A partnership with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and Michigan Technological University researchers aims to relocate fish from Montana to the Manistee River watershed. Key to this effort is the realization that the grayling are very dependent on suitable habitat.

“It may seem like there’s a lot of free-flowing water up north, but it may not be ideal to carry out the grayling’s life cycle,” said Todd Grischke, the DNR’s assistant chief of fisheries.

The Manistee River is cold, clear water and its gravelly bottom provides a suitable habitat for staging the comeback, he said.

The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians landed a $200,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant in 2010 to develop a restoration plan for both native grayling and elk. The tribe contracted with Michigan Tech to locate the rivers best suited for grayling. The fish is a part of the Manistee tribe’s heritage and culture and as such is considered important to restore, said Frank Beaver, the band’s director of natural resources.

Questions about rising water temperatures and trout competition cloud the project’s possibility of success.

History has proven that the actions of man can eliminate species. It also has shown that restoring nature’s balance is an uphill battle.

-Traverse City Record-Eagle