A broad statewide partnership is examining what it would take to reintroduce a native fish that disappeared from Michigan waters more than 80 years ago.
The group of nearly four dozen federal, state and tribal agencies, universities, municipalities, NGOs and foundations hopes to create a self-sustaining population of arctic grayling in Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula, where streams once teemed with the popular sportfish.
Using modern science and a bevy of new research on the fish, the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative aims to bring back a species that went extinct because of human activity — one that has distinct cultural ties to the region’s Native American peoples — and possibly recreate a long-lost niche fishery for anglers.
Scientists in the partnership acknowledge they face many challenges in achieving that goal, and that they remain powerless to erase the stream habitat decimation caused by the logging era of the late 1800s, which ultimately contributed to the grayling’s demise in Michigan waters. They’re also open that the state tried and failed numerous times to bring back arctic grayling, including as recently as the 1980s.
But they’re leveraging best practices from a grayling rehabilitation effort in Montana, new technologies, a broad partnership involving more than 45 statewide members, and a pragmatic approach to the initiative to ensure they’re set up for a successful reintroduction, if it ultimately proves possible.
“What we’re trying to do is minimize all of our risks to be successful,” said Todd Grischke, the assistant chief of the fisheries division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Grischke admits the partners have “a learning curve” to overcome because so much has changed in the streams since grayling last existed in northern Michigan. Most importantly, the rivers where grayling once lived have been dammed and new non-native sportfish such as brown trout and rainbow trout have upended the historical species complex compared to 150 years ago.
“We’re not trying to bite off more than we can chew or what’s realistic,” he said. “If we can find a few streams where they can thrive again, that would be considered a success.”
The DNR and the Manistee-based Little River Band of Ottawa Indians founded the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative in 2016, and the partnerships quickly built from there. Last July, the group released an action plan that outlines the research needs, management goals, fish production requirements and outreach for the project.
Currently, the bulk of the collective effort is being spent on research, particularly since the partners are approaching this project as a scientific management experiment.
Among the early research, the tribe and Houghton-based Michigan Technological University studied how Montana used remote site incubators to bolster its grayling population. The new in-stream technology takes the place of off-site hatcheries, allowing the eggs to hatch in the river so the fish can imprint better to the spawning grounds in a watershed. A subsequent study by researchers at Grand Valley State University using rainbow trout eggs determined it’s likely the remote incubators would work in conditions in the Manistee River system.
The partnership also focused on an intensive study of stream conditions to determine which areas of the Manistee River system might be best suited for grayling, with an initial focus on the stretch of river and tributaries between Tippy Dam and Hodenpyl Dam. Research that wrapped up last year focused on the river’s more pristine upper reaches.
Researchers Marty Holtgren, Brian Danhoff and Cameron Goble participate in a Michigan Tech study of a Manistee River tributary seeking to identify areas that could be conducive for arctic grayling. (PHOTO COURTESY NANCY AUER)
BEGINNING AT ZERO
Researchers involved in the initiative say they’ve being very intentional in conducting scientific studies and gathering loads of data because they’re starting literally from ground zero with grayling.
“We don’t have any graylings left in the state, so we don’t know that much about the larval habitat that’s needed or the conditions needed for the young,” said Nancy Auer, an emeritus professor at Michigan Tech. “There’s kind of a feeling that, ‘OK, we’re almost ready to take the next step,’ but we need to really understand the juvenile and egg and larval stage a little better.”
The deliberate scientific approach to the grayling initiative, rather than pushing for a quick success, will lay the groundwork for actually putting grayling into the various streams in the state, according to the researchers.
“Some of the false starts before might have been because we thought we knew what we were doing, and now I think we know a lot less,” said Frank Beaver, director of the Natural Resources Department at the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. “We feel a lot less confident about what we’re doing and we’re approaching it from the way of an experiment.”
Some of the next steps for scientists will involve out-of-state field research where grayling currently live to see how they interact in a system with other fish, including resident trout populations.
As well, the partners are preparing to conduct genetic testing to determine where to source eggs to try to develop a broodstock for introduction in Michigan. Existing arctic grayling populations in Montana — the only other place in the lower 48 states with native grayling — or Alaska are the two most likely targets.
Selecting the right genetics to survive in Michigan waters forms one of the most pivotal decisions to date for the initiative.
“Making choices about where we choose fish from probably couldn’t be more critical to our success,” said Dr. Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited, a partner organization. “Our Michigan grayling are gone and we’re not getting them back. This isn’t Jurassic Park: Nobody’s talking about getting a tissue sample from one Michigan grayling on the wall somewhere. Our fish that evolved for Michigan rivers are no longer an option, and our rivers aren’t what they were anyways.”
Burroughs said his 7,000-member organization is “skeptically supporting” the grayling reintroduction plan. He hopes the member agencies focus on “sophisticated, careful decisions,” as well as monitoring and experimentation to leave no stone unturned when it comes to every step of the long process, including broodstock selection, determining where to plant fish, how to rear them, and so on.
“Let’s make sure that at the end of this 10 or 20 year ride, we either have success or we are crystal clear on why we didn’t get it and we can move on and be happy and comfortable with that conclusion,” he said.
So far, the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative has leveraged donations from several corporate and private foundations.
They include $180,000 from the Henry E. and Consuelo S. Wenger Foundation in White Lake for a three-year study on predation and competition with existing trout species and how grayling imprint on their home waters. Some of the funding will also go to support sending researchers to Alaska to collect eggs for various studies and for possible inclusion in the state’s broodstock.
Additionally, a $117,000 grant from the Jackson-based Consumers Energy Foundation supported the creation of the initiative’s action plan and research on the upper Manistee River.
“We applaud the Michigan DNR, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and Michigan Technological University for their leadership in assembling a strong and impressive group of organizations which are partnering to carry out this exciting and worthwhile initiative,” Terry DeDoes, senior public information director at Consumers Energy, said in a statement to MiBiz.
To reach the next research milestones, however, the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative identified a need to raise more substantial outside funding. A $10,000 grant from the Rotary Charities of Traverse City to the DNR facilitated the creation of a fundraising development strategy, which the partners finalized in mid February.
The plan outlines the initiative’s $1.1 million fundraising goal that would “lay the foundation for a successful program,” Grischke said.
For example, before the partners can bring in grayling eggs, the DNR needs to install a $275,000 ultraviolet radiation treatment system at the hatchery to ensure that any effluent is free of diseases or viruses that could put the existing fisheries at risk, he said.
As well, proposed field research in Montana to help the partners study best practices for the in-stream incubators will come at a cost of $120,000.
“Obviously, the need is greater than any one agency can bring to bear on something like this,” Beaver said.
PROSPECTS FOR SUCCESS
In its action plan, the Michigan Arctic Grayling Initiative described the goal of reintroducing a self-sustaining grayling population as a “management experiment.” As such, they recognize that it could ultimately fail in its goal of creating a viable grayling population in select Michigan streams, one that would not need to be supplemented with fish stocking on a year-to-year basis.
That’s why all the partners are taking a pragmatic approach to the program and relying on the science to guide their decision making.
“I don’t see any reason why we can’t have them back,” Michigan Tech’s Auer said. “Obviously it will take a little more management. You can’t just bring the fish back and then say, ‘OK everybody: You can fish for them.’ It’s going to have to be a watched and managed operation for a while. But I don’t see any reason why (we can’t) when there’s so much more knowledge now on all kinds of fishes and how to introduce them and try to rehabilitate them in systems than we ever knew before.”
Scientists in Montana also advised the Michigan group that they will likely make plenty of mistakes throughout the process, and to not let one or two setbacks derail what needs to be a long-term effort, Beaver said.
“The broad-based nature of the partnership can’t help but contribute to success,” he said. “When we work together, I think that we’re just much better poised for success when we talk to each other and we all bring something valuable to the table.”
CREATING A FISHERY?
The action plan also includes a stated goal of creating a viable grayling fishery, one that anglers could experience for the first time since the 1930s. However, fishermen should not construe that to mean grayling will be readily available across Northern Michigan in a couple of decades, according to the DNR’s Grischke.
Rather, he likens it to the state’s lake sturgeon population, which has been pulled back from the brink as a result of a concerted multi-agency effort, but still remains a highly rare species in the wild.
From Burrough’s perspective at Trout Unlimited, a successful project should create some kind of “boutique fishery” for the public to access that would ultimately contribute to angler tourism and the local economy.
While he acknowledges the initiative still faces long odds and will come at a high cost — perhaps at the expense of other fisheries projects, Burroughs appreciates the fact that the collaborative is trying to salvage some sort of win after the tragic loss of a native species.
“Just knowing that we might be able to use our science and collective tools today to fix something that we did wrong in the past, that’s cool,” he said. “I love that notion that we can take what we’ve learned and fix something that we did when we didn’t know better.