In the upper reaches of Montana’s Big Hole Valley, Western Rivers Conservancy is working to return critically needed water to the Wise River by conserving the 200-acre Eagle Rock Ranch. The Wise is a major tributary to the Big Hole River, one of Montana’s best known fly fishing streams and the Lower 48’s last remaining stronghold for fluvial Arctic grayling.
The Big Hole’s grayling rear in the cold waters of just five main tributaries, one of which is the Wise. But these cold streams have been increasingly vulnerable to water withdraws, development and a warming climate, which threaten grayling populations throughout the Big Hole system.
Fluvial Arctic grayling were candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act for years, which spurred local ranchers, farmers, conservationists and others to voluntarily come together to improve conditions for the imperiled fish. The effort was largely successful. Now, protecting Big Hole tributaries and ensuring they remain clean and cold is critical to keeping these grayling populations alive.
In summer 2021, WRC purchased Eagle Rock Ranch, which controls the upper-most major water rights on the Wise River. Once we secure funding, we intend to convey the property to the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and ultimately dedicate the ranch’s water in-stream in partnership with Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Project. This will allow us to permanently return 10.5 CFS of water to the Wise River, a significant amount of water for a stream this size. The increased flows will benefit not just grayling, but westslope cutthroat trout and mountain whitefish, as well as the non-native rainbow and brown trout for which the Big Hole is famous among fly anglers.
In addition to being the West’s only stronghold for Arctic grayling, the Big Hole Valley provides outstanding habitat for birds. Upstream of the Wise River confluence, the flat, meandering nature of the Big Hole, coupled with extensive winter snows and late snowmelt, result in abundant wetlands that harbor everything from sandhill crane and long-billed curlew (a migratory shorebird) to sage grouse, American kestrel, killdeer and golden and bald eagle. These and other species rely on the open country of the Big Hole Valley, including places like the ranch that WRC is working to protect.
Once we transfer the property to the U.S. Forest Service, this rare, unprotected inholding within the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest will be permanently conserved. The land will remain intact, and the ranch’s water will be returned to the Wise River for the sake of the Big Hole’s wild fish, exceptional birdlife and other wildlife.