By Chris Lamphere
This article was originally published in the 2023 Spring Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine.
What will it take to bring Arctic grayling back to Michigan?
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and a host of partner organizations are in the midst of answering just that question.
It’s a project that has already garnered quite a bit of support and a fair amount of criticism.
Those who aren’t on board with the idea say many important questions remain and uncertainties to be addressed.
The cost of grayling
A question frequently and fervently posed by those concerned about the restocking initiative is how it will be funded long-term.
This question holds particular relevance today, when the coffers of conservation agencies such as the DNR continue to dwindle year after year.
“I have a hard time imagining a world where grayling aren’t managed by the same dollars that are being used for other fish species,” said Nick Green, director of communications and marketing for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.
Green said the concern is that funding — in limited supply already — could eventually be siphoned away from other species in favor of grayling, whose viability in Michigan waterways is uncertain at best.
In addition, Green said the preferential treatment of grayling might lead to limited public access in areas where the fish have been stocked.
“One of the best ways to manage a budding fishery is to stop angling pressure,” Green said. “Are we going to be able to still fish in that river? What if the fish moves or migrates? We don’t know how resilient they’ll be (to stream temperatures increasing due to climate change). These are all questions that have to be answered.”
MUCC membership passed a resolution in 2018 stating that the organization and its members would only support the restocking initiative if the following conditions are met: that management of existing fisheries will not be affected by a change in the legal status of grayling such as “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act elsewhere in the United States (more on this later); that the planting of grayling will only occur in water bodies where support exists from stakeholders and anglers; and if the funding of a grayling program is confirmed.
Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited, said TU doesn’t have an official stance for or against the idea, as opinions among membership run the gamut.
Speaking as someone familiar with how public resources are allocated, however, Burroughs said he has some initial concerns.
“We have limited resources and hard choices about our priorities,” Burroughs said. “Do we even have the money and staff to manage the fish species we already have? Not even close.”
Trout provide a clear example, Burroughs said, of a fish that is very demanding of management resources, relatively fragile in conditions where it can flourish and impairment intolerant.
Given how familiar he is with the complexities of trout management, the idea of introducing another species that is potentially more demanding, fragile and intolerant is worrisome, to say the least, especially if funding levels remain what they currently are, Burroughs said.
What if the Feds step in to manage grayling?
In 2017, the Upper Black River Council drafted a resolution opposing the grayling restocking plan in the Upper Black River or any of its tributaries.
The Upper Black River system is upstream of Black Lake in Cheboygan, Montmorency, Otsego and Presque Isle counties. It is the only river in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula exclusively managed for brook trout, for which it is renowned.
“If selected, the effect of such a reintroduction into the Upper Black River system is largely unknown and has the potential to be detrimental to brook trout and the other biological factors upon which these fish depend,” reads a portion the resolution.Paul Rose, interim chair of the Upper Black River Council, said the management of the river is unique in that it is made possible through the combined efforts of local, state and national governmental entities, a non-profit conservation and sportsmen’s organizations, private landowners and interested citizens. Rose said this coalition was formed in 1993, when the DNR, due to staff downsizing, could no longer perform all in-stream management work.
Rose said they’re not opposed to the idea of grayling restocking in principle; the plan’s details concern them, mainly because those details have been hard to come by.
“We were never told the process for stream selection,” Rose said. “We couldn’t get a clear answer. We felt there was not a transparent process for how this was being discussed.”
One scenario that Rose and others fear is that reintroduction of grayling could eventually alter management for other species, including brook trout. Rose said this might happen, for instance, if the federal government decides one day to list grayling as a protected species. Such a listing likely would throw the current management model of the Upper Black River into disarray, Rose said, since it would come under the lens of an entirely new regulatory regime.
Scott Hicks, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Michigan Ecological Services Field Office in Lansing, in 2018 wrote a letter to the DNR outlining the scenarios under which grayling could become listed as “threatened” or “endangered.”
Hicks wrote that their position is that the Michigan grayling is extinct and that any fish brought in from another state, such as Montana or Alaska, would be outside their historical range and not eligible to be listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973.
Hicks continued, however, that if grayling were to become listed range-wide at the species level, then any population in Michigan would be protected, although he added that they did not “envision a scenario where the Arctic grayling at the species level would warrant listing range-wide.”
Hicks suggested a proactive way to address this concern would be to develop a “Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances,” which is an agreement between the government and one or more parties delineating the conservation needs of a species before they become listed as “threatened” or “endangered.”
If the species is eventually listed, the agreement assures that future regulatory obligations will not be imposed beyond those previously agreed to.
On a personal level, Hicks said he thought restocking grayling was exciting ecologically, especially for someone who likes to fish.
An intrinsic good?
Given the fish’s history in Michigan, the idea is seen as an inherent good for many who support the reintroduction of grayling.
“It’s not necessarily an economic issue, as much as a value issue,” said Todd Grischke, assistant chief of the DNR Fisheries Division. “There’s an intrinsic, cultural value and a nostalgia there. The sheer presence of grayling is important to people … they represent values that are hard to put a dollar figure on.”
When asked about the concerns some have expressed about resource limitations, Grischke replied that he believes it’s possible that grayling can be managed just like any other fish species currently in Michigan.
Grischke added that support for the idea has picked up a lot of steam, starting with a handful of supporters a few years ago and growing into more than 40 organizations that so far have raised $800,000 toward the project — funds that will go toward research, public outreach, fish production and management, and other efforts.
Grischke said a lot of research still has to be completed before they discuss exactly where grayling will be reintroduced. However, they already have identified several watersheds, including the Manistee, Au Sable, Maple, Boardman and Jordan, which they believe could offer a suitable habitat, even considering the wild card of climate change.
“They were intentionally selected because they had the habitats to support grayling in the past,” Grischke said. “The good news is they’re cold-water streams that should provide a buffer against the effects of climate change.”
Researchers also are examining predation and competition behaviors between grayling and other fish species in a laboratory setting to help them further narrow down which areas would be best for restocking. Early data from the study suggests that the density of brown trout could be a deciding factor in whether or not grayling are successful in any given area.
Grischke said the presence of other fish is the driving factor that the DNR and its partners consider as they mull the best location for grayling reintroduction.
Ultimately, Grischke said they’re looking for streams where conditions come together to provide a habitat for a long-term, self-sustaining grayling population. Once they have more data, the picture will become clearer regarding where this habitat exists in Michigan. At that time, the DNR will sit with the various stakeholders and conservation groups to hash out the restocking plan moving forward.
Grischke said the DNR and its partners hope to plant fish as early as 2024 or 2025. In the meantime, he said they’re still fundraising to meet the project’s $1.2 million budget proposal. Fundraising efforts include selling limited-edition prints of the first-known lithograph of grayling from the 1800s.
An inspirational idea or human arrogance?
Burroughs, with Trout Unlimited, said from the standpoint of a biologist, he fully supports the grayling research and the overall spirit of the project.
“I love innovation,” Burroughs said. “Letting biologists go out in the field to learn and play with new technologies (such as streamside incubator systems, which were not available when grayling reintroduction was attempted in the past) — there are benefits to it.”
If the project succeeds, Burroughs said it would be an inspirational achievement.
“I see the value of using new knowledge and tools to fix a wrong,” Burroughs said.
At the same time, however, Burroughs said it might also be an instance of human arrogance — to assume that we can or should meddle with the current natural order.
It also might be arrogant to assume that the grayling from Alaska will be essentially the same as the fish that died off in the 1930s. Burroughs said that since the fish will have different genetics, bringing them to Michigan may have unintended side effects. However, he reiterated that at the end of the day, he’s much more concerned about the impact grayling could have on existing management resources than on the environment.
With the project moving forward, Burroughs said he hopes that researchers will be able to apply what they learn in a way that makes sense for the existing uses of Michigan rivers and the current ecology.
“The hard piece is knowing what they’ll like for habitat,” Burroughs said. “What is the habitat unique to grayling that other fish don’t like? I think that’s the secret.”
To learn more about the initiative from parties involved, visit their homepage here.