In order to counteract Arctic grayling fish population declines in the Big Hole River in southwest Montana, rural stakeholders have partnered with natural resource managers on Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA) activities. The goal of a CCAA is to undertake activities that conserve a species, precluding an Endangered Species Act listing. The objectives of our study were to determine how 1) stakeholders regard Arctic grayling recovery efforts and CCAA management partners, 2) stakeholder perceptions of grayling population numbers compared with electrofishing estimates of grayling population numbers and size structure, and 3) grayling restoration projects related to economic activity of potential benefit to stakeholders. Surveys assessing attitudes towards grayling management practices were sent to 300 watershed residents in February 2008. Survey results were compared with results from fall electrofishing studies of the Big Hole River grayling population made in 1990, 1998, and 2008, and to state and federal demographic and economic census data for Beaverhead County, Montana.
We received 83 responses to our survey, mostly from male landowners 50 years or older who identified their occupation as farming, ranching, government or retired. This contrasted with census data for the county indicative of a higher proportion of younger stakeholders, women, and a more diverse occupational portfolio than was reflected by our survey results. Respondents indicated grayling numbers had declined (31%) or stayed about the same (25%) in the last 10 years, and that it would be favorable for grayling numbers to increase (60%). Correlation was strong between stakeholder perceptions of grayling numbers and trends in electrofishing estimates over time. In contrast, stakeholder perceptions of fish size distribution were biased towards larger fish than are typically observed in electrofishing samples. When asked to rank factors associated with declining grayling numbers, respondents chose drought, habitat loss and birds as factors strongly associated. Activities listed as strongly associated with increasing grayling numbers varied, but often included drought management. Management agencies that spent a considerable amount of time in on-the-ground restoration activities in partnership with landowners were viewed much more favorably than agencies with greater land management responsibilities and less time to spend building relationships with individual landowners. Stakeholders regarded management agencies Benefits of CCAA activities to the local “restoration” economy included an influx of over $3 million dollars since 2006. CCAA activities could be linked to future federal, state, and university infrastructure, education and workforce training programs, with substantial benefits to local communities.