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Au Sable Teams with MDNR, Michigan Tech and Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Grayling Research

Jan 27, 2017

In any place or part of the world, species loss is a sad event. Once a native species has been extirpated from an area, it is very difficult to restore it. But such restoration is the goal of a new effort to reintroduce the Arctic Grayling in northern Michigan. The grayling is a slate-blue fish with an extraordinarily large, graceful dorsal fin (see photo), giving it a unique appearance that has contributed to its iconic status among freshwater fish in this Great Lakes state. Common in waters further north in Canada and northern Europe, some grayling populations were able to spread southward during past periods of glaciation, when colder temperatures created correspondingly colder stream conditions to which they were adapted. As the glaciers retreated, most of these southern populations disappeared. But two “glacial relict” populations persisted to the present time. One in Montana, and the other in northern Michigan, particularly in the Manistee and Au Sable River watersheds.

The Montana population survives to this day, but the Michigan population was lost through a combination of overfishing, habitat degradation, and stream sedimentation associated with logging in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Once described by early anglers as so plentiful that they “lay like cordwood” across the channels of streams like the Au Sable, the last recorded catch of a grayling occurred in the upper Manistee River in 1938. Although the county seat of Michigan’s Crawford County proudly bears the fish’s name (Grayling, Michigan), its namesake species no longer inhabits the Au Sable River that runs through it or the waters of the nearby Manistee.

Past attempts to reintroduce the grayling have failed, but new technologies and better research studies involving reintroductions in other areas have encouraged a new effort, one that provides hope and optimism for success. The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Technological University, and many other governmental and private conservation organizations like Trout Unlimited have been taking leading roles in forming an interdisciplinary team to begin the effort of restoring the grayling to Michigan. The Au Sable Institute has also been invited to be a part of the Grayling Restoration Effort, and will, beginning this spring, take a direct role in determining the best stream habitat conditions favorable to survival of re-introduced grayling, and where such habitat conditions occur.

Through a Consumers Energy Foundation grant received by the Michigan DNR and LRBOI, the Au Sable Institute will work with Michigan Tech, DNR and Tribal researchers in helping to identify and quantify habitat characteristics that will be most favorable as remote, in-stream rearing areas for grayling fry, with the hope of establishing resident grayling populations as these young fish mature at these sites.  Dr. Marty Holtgren, fisheries biologist with the DNR’s Tribal Coordination Unit, a co-author of the grant and an Au Sable alum, included Au Sable as a cooperating organization in the grant proposal, with input provided from Au Sable’s Executive Director, Dr. Fred Van Dyke. For the study, Au Sable will provide student research assistants to support work in the field, as well as support, by Au Sable assistants, faculty, staff, and Institute consultants, in analysis of data collected in the field. Explaining his reasons for including Au Sable in the effort Marty said “Au Sable is ideally situated geographically for this study and I know that the Institute will provide the type of student researchers that we need for this project; committed, well-prepared and with a desire to learn from this unique experience.  The Au Sable faculty and staff will also be a great complement to the research team that is assembled.” Fred Van Dyke, Au Sable’s Executive Director, also looks forward to making Au Sable part of the effort. “We’re honored, as well as excited, to have a part in such an important work of ecological restoration right here in northern Michigan, where we live, work and study, and very grateful to Marty for remembering and including us in this effort. This will be a great opportunity and experience for Au Sable students, and a great opportunity for professional experience and development for our faculty and staff who will be helping Michigan Tech scientists in their analysis of habitat suitability data.”

It will take time and hard work to bring the grayling back to northern Michigan, but Au Sable is thrilled to have a part in this important work of caring for God’s creation, and to being involved right from the start. There’s nothing like a good beginning to a good work.


Grayling photo by James N Perdue, 2012.