Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature - David Quammen (1996)


Jeremy Bentham, the Pietà, and a Precious Few Grayling

RUMOR HAD IT THEY WERE GONE, or nearly gone, killed off in large numbers by dewatering and high temperatures during the bad drought of 1977. The last sizable population of Thymallus arcticus, the Arctic grayling, indigenous to a river in the lower forty-eight states: ppffft. George Liknes, a graduate student in fisheries biology at Montana State University, was trying to do his master’s degree on these besieged grayling of the upper Big Hole River in western Montana, and word passed that his collecting nets, in the late summer of 1978, were coming up empty. The grayling were not where they had been, or if they were, Liknes for some reason wasn’t finding them. None at all? “Well,” said one worried wildlife biologist, “precious few.”

Grayling are not suited for solitude. Like the late lamented passenger pigeon, they are by nature and necessity gregarious, thriving best in rather crowded communities of their own kind. When the size of a population sinks below a certain threshold, grayling are liable to disappear altogether, evidently incapable of successful pairing and reproduction without the advantages supplied by dense aggregation. This may have been what happened in Michigan. Native grayling were extinguished there, rather abruptly, during the 1930s.

The Michigan grayling and the Montana strain had been isolated from each other and from all other grayling for thousands of years. They were glacial relicts, meaning that they had gradually fled southward into open water during the last great freeze of the Pleistocene epoch; then, when the mile-thick flow of ice stopped just this side of the Canadian border and began melting back northward, they were left behind in Michigan and Montana as two separate populations of grayling. These two populations were trapped, as it turned out, cut off by hundreds of miles from what became the primary range of the species, across northern Canada and Alaska. They were stuck in warmish southern habitats occupied more comfortably by competitor species such as cutthroat trout, brook trout, and mountain whitefish, and overlapping the future range of dominance of another problematic species, Homo sapiens. Their own future, consequently, was insecure.

The Michigan grayling went first. They had been abundant in the upper part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and in the Otter River of the Upper Peninsula. One report tells of four people catching three thousand grayling in fourteen days from the Manistee River and hauling most of that catch off to Chicago. By 1935, not surprisingly, the Manistee was barren of grayling. Before long, so was the rest of the state. Saw logs had been floated down rivers at spawning time, stream banks had been stripped of vegetation (causing water temperatures to rise), exotic competing fish (such as brown trout and rainbows) had been introduced, and greedy pressure like that on the Manistee had continued. By 1940 the people of Michigan had just the grayling they were asking for: none.

In Montana, where things tend to happen more slowly, some remnant of the original grayling population has endured, against similar adversities in less intense form, by way of a tenuous balance of losses and gains. Although they have disappeared during the past eighty years from parts of their Montana range, they have meanwhile expanded into some new habitat. More accurately, they have been introduced to new habitat, by way of hatchery rearing and planting—the ecological equivalent of forced school busing. As early as 1903, soon after the founding of the Fish Cultural Development Station in Bozeman, the state of Montana got into the business of grayling aquaculture; and for almost sixty years thereafter the planting of hatchery grayling was in great vogue.

The indigenous range of the Montana grayling was in the headwaters of the Missouri River above Great Falls. They were well established in several branches of that grand drainage: the Smith River, the Sun River, the Madison, the Gallatin, and the Jefferson River and its tributaries—notably the Big Hole River. They had evolved mainly as a stream-dwelling species and existed in only a very few Montana lakes. However, they happened to be rather tolerant of low dissolved-oxygen levels, at least when those levels occurred in cold winter conditions (though not in summer conditions, when oxygen was driven out of solution by warming). This made them suitable for stocking in high lakes, where they could get through the winter on what minimal oxygen remained under the ice. In 1909, 50,000 grayling from the Bozeman hatchery were planted in Georgetown Lake. Just a dozen years later, 28 million grayling eggs were collected from Georgetown, to supply hatchery brood for planting elsewhere. And the planting continued: Ennis Lake, Rogers Lake, Mussigbrod Lake, Grebe Lake in Yellowstone National Park. Between 1928 and 1977, millions more grayling were dumped into Georgetown Lake.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t all. Back in 1909, hatchery grayling were also planted in the Bitterroot and Flathead Rivers, on the west side of the Continent Divide, in stream waters they had never colonized naturally. It was an innocent experiment, and without large consequences, since the grayling introduced there evidently did not take hold. But then, in what may have seemed a logical extension of all this hatchery rearing and planting, the Big Hole River received a dump of hatchery grayling. The fact that the Big Hole already had a healthy, reproducing population of grayling was not judged to be reason against adding more. From 1937 until 1962, according to the records of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP), roughly 5 million grayling from the Anaconda hatchery were poured into the Big Hole, from the town of Divide upstream to the headwaters: hothouse grayling raining down on wild grayling.

This was before FWP biologists had come to the belated realization that massive planting of hatchery fish in habitat where the same species exists as a reproducing population is the best of all ways to make life miserable for the wild fish. Things are done differently these days, but the mistake was irreversible. The ambitious sequence of plantings was very likely the most disastrous single thing that ever happened to the indigenous grayling of the Big Hole.

At best, each planting instantaneously created tenement conditions of habitat and famine conditions of food supply. In each place where the hatchery truck stopped, the river became a grayling ghetto. At worst, if any of the planted fish survived long enough to breed with one another and interbreed with the wild fish, the whole planting program may have served to degrade the gene pool of the Big Hole grayling, making them less well adapted to the river’s particular conditions, less capable of surviving the natural adversities—drought, flood, temperature fluctuation, predation—of their natural habitat.

Then again, it’s unlikely that more than a few of those planted grayling did survive long enough to breed. The mortality rate on hatchery grayling planted in rivers is close to 100 percent during the first year, and most don’t last even three months, whether or not they are caught by a fisherman. Those planted grayling come, after all, from a small sample of lake-dwelling parents, a sample comprising little genetic variation or inherited capacity for coping with moving water. Reared in the Orwellian circumstances of the hatchery, cooped in concrete troughs, without a beaver or a merganser to harry them, eating Purina trout chow from the hand of man, what chance have they finally in the most challenging of habitats, a mountain river? The term “fish planting” itself is a gross misnomer when applied to dropping grayling or trout into rivers; there is no illusion, even among hatchery people, that many of these plants will ever take root. More realistically, it’s like providing an Easter egg hunt for tourists with fishing rods.

In 1962 the Big Hole planting ceased and the remaining wild grayling, those that hadn’t died during the famine and tenement periods, were left to get on as best they could. Then came the 1977 drought and, a year later, the George Liknes study. One of Liknes’s study sections on the Big Hole was a two-mile stretch downstream from the town of Wisdom to just above the Squaw Creek bridge. On a certain remote part of the stretch, a rancher had sunk a string of old car bodies to hold his hayfield in place against bank erosion. From that two-mile stretch, using electroshocking collection equipment that is generally reliable for fish censusing, Liknes did not take a single grayling. This came as worrisome news to me, because on a morning in late summer 1975, standing waist-deep within sight of the same string of car bodies and offering no great demonstration of angling skill, I had caught and released thirty-one grayling in four hours. Now they were either gone or in hiding.

Grayling belong to the salmonid family, as cousins of trout and salmon and whitefish. In many ways they seem to be an intermediate form between whitefish and trout, sharing some resemblances with each of those clusters of species. In other ways, they depart uniquely from the salmonid pattern.

The first thing usually noted about them, their identifying character, is the large and beautiful dorsal fin. It sweeps backward twice the length of a trout’s, fanning out finally into a trailing lobe, and it is, under certain circumstances, the most exquisitely colorful bit of living matter to be found in the state of Montana: spackled with rows of bright turquoise spots that blend variously to aquamarine and reddish orange toward the front of the fin, a deep hazy shading of iridescent mauve overall, and along the upper edge, in some individuals, a streak of shocking rose. That’s how it looks in the wild, or even when the fish is stuck on a hook several inches underwater. Lift the fish into air and the exquisiteness disappears. The bright spots and iridescence drain away at once, the dorsal fin folds down to nothing, and you are holding a drab gunmetal creature that looks very much like a whitefish. The grayling magic vanishes, like a dreamed sibyl, when you pull it to you.

Apart from this dorsal fin, in its optimal display condition, the grayling does resemble that most maligned and misunderstood of Montana creatures, the mountain whitefish, Prosopium williamsoni. Both are upholstered, unlike the various trout species, with large, stiff scales—scales you wouldn’t want to eat. Both have dull-colored bodies, grayish silver in the grayling, brownish silver in the whitefish, though the grayling does carry as additional adornment a smattering of purplish black spots along its forward flank, playing dimly off the themes in the dorsal fin. Grayling and whitefish are distinguishable (from each other, and from their common salmonid relatives) by the shape of their mouths. A trout has a wide, sweeping, toothy grin. A whitefish mouth is narrow, virtually toothless, and set in a snout that is cartilaginous and pointed, almost like a rat’s, which probably contributes to the unpopularity of whitefish among fly fishermen, who don’t enjoy disengaging their delicate flies from such rubbery muzzles. The grayling mouth, as you can see if you look closely, is an uneasy compromise between those other two forms: a prim orifice, neither wide nor narrow, set with numerous tiny teeth and fendered with large cartilaginous maxillaries, too short and inoffensive to be fairly called a snout. My point is this: The grayling is one of America’s most beautiful fish, but only a few subtle anatomical differences separate it from one of the most ugly. A lesson about pride, I suppose.

But a superfluous lesson, since the grayling by character is anything but overweening. It is dainty and fragile and relatively submissive. With tiny teeth and little moxie, it fails in competition against trout, at least along the southern periphery of its range—and that’s another reason for its decline in the Big Hole, where rainbow and brown and brook trout, none of them indigenous, now bully it mercilessly. Like many beautiful creatures that have known fleeting success, the grayling is dumb. It seeks security in gregariousness and these days is liable to find, instead, carnage. When insect food is on the water and the fish are attuned to that fact, a fisherman can stand in one spot, literally without moving his feet, and catch a dozen grayling. Trout are not so foolish. Drag one from a hole and the word will be out to the others. The grayling cannot take such a hint. In the matter of food it is an unshakeable optimist; the distinction between a mayfly on the water’s surface and a hook decorated with feathers and floss is lost on it. But this rashness, in the Big Hole for example, might again be partly a consequence (as well as a cause) of its beleaguered circumstances. The exotic trouts, being dominant, seize the choice territorial positions of habitat, and the grayling, pushed off into marginal water where a fish can only with difficulty make a living, may be forced to feed much more recklessly than it otherwise would.

At certain moments the grayling seems even a bit stoic, as though it had seen its own future and made adjustments. This is noticeable from the point of view of the fisherman. A rainbow trout with a hook jerked snug in its mouth will leap as though it is angry, furious—leap maybe five or six times, thrashing the air convulsively each time. If large, it will run upstream, finally to go to the bottom and begin scrabbling its head in the rubble to scrape out the hook. A whitefish, unimaginative and implacable, will usually not jump, will never run, will stay near the bottom and resist with pure loutish muscle. A grayling will jump once, if at all, and remain limp in the air, leaping the way a Victorian matron would swoon into someone’s arms—with demure, trusting abandon. Then, possibly after a polite tussle, the grayling will let its head be pulled above the water’s surface, turn passively onto its side, and allow itself to be hauled in. Once beaten, a rainbow trout can be coaxed with certain tricks of handling to give you three seconds of docility while you extract the hook so as to release it. A whitefish will struggle like a hysterical pig no matter what. A grayling will simply lie in your hand, pliant and fatalistic, placing itself at your mercy.

So no one has much use for the grayling, not even fishermen. It grows slowly, never as large as a lunker trout, and gives unsatisfactory battle. It is scaly, bony, and not especially good to eat. Montana’s fishing regulations allow you to kill five of them from the Big Hole in a day* and five more every day all summer—but what will you do with them? Last year a Butte man returned from a weekend on the river and offered a friend of mine ten grayling to feed his cat. The man had killed them because he caught them, very simple logic, but then realized he had no use for them. This year my friend’s cat is dead, through no fault of the grayling, so even that outlet is gone. A grayling does not cook up well, it does not fight well. It happens to have an extravagant dorsal fin, but no one knows why. If you kill one to hang on your wall, its colors will wilt away dishearteningly, and the taxidermist will hand you back a whitefish in rouge and eye shadow. The grayling, face it, is useless. Like the auk, like the zebra swallowtail, like Angkor Wat.

In June 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that completion of the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River was prohibited by law, namely the 1973 Endangered Species Act, because the dam would destroy the only known habitat of the snail darter, Percina tanasi, a small species of fish belonging to the perch family. One argument in support of this prohibition, perhaps the crucial argument, was that the snail darter’s genes might at some time in the future prove useful, even invaluable, to the balance of life on Earth, or at least to the welfare of humanity. If the Penicillium fungus had gone extinct when the dodo did, according to this argument, many thousands of additional human beings by now would have died of diphtheria and pneumonia. You could never foresee what you might need, what might prove useful in the line of genetic options, so nothing at all should be squandered, nothing dismissed, nothing relinquished. Thus it was reasoned on behalf of snail darter preservation. The logic is as solid as it is pernicious.

The whole argument by utility may be one of the most dangerous strategic errors that the environmental movement has made. The best reason for saving the snail darter was this: precisely because it is flat useless. That’s what makes it special. It wasn’t put there, in the Little Tennessee River; it has no ironclad reason for being there; it is simply there. A hydroelectric dam, which can be built in a mere ten years for a mere $119 million, will have utility on its side of the balance against snail darter genes, if not now, then at some future time when the cost of electricity has risen above the cost of recreating (or approximating) the snail darter through genetic engineering. A snail darter arrived at the hard way, the Darwinian way, through millions of years of random variation and natural selection, reaching its culmination in a small homely animal roughly resembling a sculpin, is something far more precious than a net asset in potential utility. What then, exactly? That isn’t easy to say, without gibbering in transcendental tones. But something more than a floppy disk storing coded genetic lingo for a rainy day.

Another example: On a Sunday in May 1972, an addled Hungarian named Laszlo Toth jumped a railing in St. Peter’s Basilica and took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pietà, knocking the nose off the figure of Mary, and part of her lowered eyelid, and her right arm at the elbow. The world groaned. Italian officials charged Toth with crimes worth a maximum total of nine years’ imprisonment. Some people, but no one of liberal disposition, declared that capital punishment would be more appropriate. In fact, what probably should have been done was to let Italian police sergeants take Toth into a Roman alley and smack his nose off, and part of his eyelid, and his arm at the elbow, with a hammer. The Pietà was at that time 473 years old, the only signed sculpture by the greatest sculptor in human history. I don’t know whether Laszlo Toth served the full nine years, but very likely not. Deoclecio Redig de Campos, of the Vatican art-restoration laboratories, said at the time that restoring the sculpture, with glue and stucco and substitute bits of marble, would be “an awesome task that might take three years,” but later he cheered up some and amended that to “a matter of months.” You and I know better. The Michelangelo Pietà is gone. The Michelangelo/de Campos Pietà is the one now back on display. There is a large difference. What exactly is the difference? Again hard to say, but it has much to do with the snail darter.

Sage editorialists wrote that Toth’s vandalism was viewed by some as an act of leftist political symbolism: “Esthetics must bow to social change, even if in the process the beautiful must be destroyed, as in Paris during les événements, when students scrawled across paintings ‘No More Masterpieces.’ So long as human beings do not eat, we must break up ecclesiastical plate and buy bread.” The balance of utility had tipped. The only directly useful form of art, after all, is that which we call pornography.

Still another example: In May 1945 the Target Committee of scientists and ordnance experts from the Manhattan Project met to hash out a list of the best potential Japanese targets for the American atomic bomb. At the top of the list they placed Kyoto, an industrial center inhabited by one million people, which happened also to be the ancient capital of Japan, for eleven centuries the source of much that was beautiful in Japanese civilization, and the site of many gorgeous and sacred Shinto shrines. The target list circulated to a small circle of Washington policy-makers, among whom was Henry L. Stimson, Harry Truman’s inherited secretary of war. Stimson was no softie. He was a stubbornly humane old man who had years earlier served as secretary of war under William Howard Taft, then as secretary of state under Herbert Hoover. The notion of targeting Kyoto put his back up. “This is one time I’m going to be the final deciding authority. Nobody’s going to tell me what to do on this. On this matter I am the kingpin.” And he struck the city of shrines off the list. Truman concurred. Think what you will of the subsequent bombing of Hiroshima—unspeakably barbarous act, most justifiable act under the circumstances, possibly both; still, the sparing of Kyoto, acknowledged as a superior target in military terms, was possibly the most imaginative decision that Harry Truman was ever advised and persuaded to make. In May 1945, the shrines of Kyoto did not enjoy the balance of utility.

“By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing), or (what comes again to the same thing) to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered: if that party be the community in general, then the happiness of the community; if a particular individual, then the happiness of that individual.” This was written by Jeremy Bentham, the English legal scholar of the eighteenth century who founded that school of philosophy known as utilitarianism. He also wrote, in Principles of Morals and Legislation, that “an action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility…when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it.” In more familiar words, moral tenets and legislation should always be such as to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. And “the greatest number” has generally been taken to mean (though Bentham himself might not have agreed: see “Animal Rights and Beyond,” above) the greatest number of humans.

This is a nefariously sensible philosophy. If it had been adhered to strictly throughout the world since Bentham enunciated it, there would now be no ecclesiastical plate or jeweled papal chalices, no symphony orchestras, no ballet companies, no Picassos, no Apollo moon landings, no well-preserved Kyoto. Had it been retroactive, there would be no Egyptian pyramids, no Taj Mahal, no texts of Plato; nor would there have been any amassing of wealth by Florentine oligarchs and hence no Italian Renaissance; finally, therefore, no Pietà, not even a mangled one. And if Bentham’s principle of utility—in its economic formulation, or in thermodynamic terms, or even in biomedical ones—is applied today and tomorrow as the ultimate standard for matters of legislation, let alone morals, then there will eventually be no parasitic microbes and no mosquitoes and no man-eating crocodiles and no snail darters and no…

But we were talking about the Big Hole grayling. George Liknes was finding few, and none at all near the string of car bodies, and this worried me. I had strong personal feelings toward the grayling of the Big Hole. What sort of feelings? “Proprietary” is not the right word—too presumptuous; rather, something in the vein of “cherishing” and “reliance.” I had come to count on the fact, for cheer and solace in a very slight way, that they were there, that they existed—beautiful, dumb, and useless—in the upper reaches of that particular river. It had happened because I had gone up there each year for a number of years—usually in late August, which is the start of autumn in the Big Hole Valley, or in early September—with two hulking Irishmen, brothers. Each year, stealing two days for this pilgrimage just as the first cottonwoods were taking on patches of yellow, we three together visited the grayling.

At that time of year the Big Hole grayling are feeding, mainly in the mornings, on a plague of tiny dark mayflies belonging to the genus Tricorythodes and known casually by the shorthand “trikes.” A trike is roughly the size of a caraway seed, black-bodied with pale milky wings. Inconsiderable as individuals, they appear on the water by the millions, and the grayling line up (in certain areas) to sip at them. The trike hatch happens every August and September, beginning each morning when the sun begins warming the water, continuing daily for more than a month, and it is one of the reasons thirty-one grayling can be caught in a few hours. The trike hatch was built into my understanding with the Irishmen, an integral part of the yearly ritual. Trike time, time to visit the Big Hole grayling.

Not stalk, not confront, certainly not kill and eat; visit. No great angling thrills attach to catching grayling. You don’t fish at them for the satisfaction of fooling a crafty animal on its own terms or fighting a wild little teakettle battle across the tenuous connection of a fine monofilament leader, as you do with trout. The whole context of expectations and rewards is different. You catch grayling to visit them: to hold one carefully in the water, hook freed, dorsal flaring, and gape at the colors, and then watch as it dashes away. This is good for a person, though it could never be the greatest good for the greatest number. I had visited them regularly at trike time with the two Irishmen, including the autumn of the younger brother’s divorce, and during the days just before the birth of the older brother’s first daughter, and through some personal weather of my own. So I did not want to hear about a Big Hole River that was empty of grayling.

A fair question to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks is this: If these fish constitute a unique and historic population, a wonderful zoological rarity within the lower forty-eight states, why let a person kill five in a day for cat food? FWP biologists have offered three standard answers: 1) They, the departmental biologists, possessed no reliable data (until George Liknes finished his master’s thesis) on the Big Hole grayling, and they do not like to recommend changes in management regulations except on the basis of data; 2) grayling are very fecund—a female will sometimes lay more than 10,000 eggs—and so it’s the availability of habitat and infant mortality and competition with trout that limit grayling population levels, not fishing pressure; finally 3) these grayling are glacial relicts, meaning that they have been left behind in this marginal habitat and are naturally doomed to elimination by climate change, with all adverse actions of mankind only accelerating that inevitability.

And yet 1) over a period of twenty-five years, evidently without the basic data that would have revealed such efforts as counterproductive, FWP spent large sums of money to burden the Big Hole grayling with 5 million hatchery outsiders; 2) though fishermen are admittedly not the limiting factor on the total number of grayling in the river, they can easily affect the number of large, successful, genetically gifted spawning stock in the population, since those are precisely the individual fish that fishermen, unlike high temperatures or low oxygen concentrations or competitive trout, kill in disproportionate numbers. There might be money for more vigorous pursuit of data, there might be support for protecting the grayling from cats, but the critical constituency involved here is fishermen, and the balance of utility is not on the side of the grayling. As for 3), not only have the rivers of Montana grown warmer with the end of the Pleistocene, but Earth generally is warming, thanks to human actions and probably also larger geophysical considerations; in fact, our little planet is falling slowly, inexorably out of orbit and into the sun; and the sun itself is meanwhile dying. So all earthly wildlife is doomed to eventual elimination, the world will end, the solar system will end, and mankind is only et cetera.

The year before last, the Irishmen and I missed our visit. The older brother had a second daughter coming, and the younger brother was in Germany, in the army, soon to have a second wife. I could have gone alone but I didn’t. So all I knew of Thymallus arcticus on the upper Big Hole was what I heard from George Liknes: not good. Through the winter I asked FWP biologists for news of the Big Hole grayling: not good.

Then one day in late August last year, I sneaked away and drove up the Big Hole toward the town of Wisdom, specifically for a visit. I stopped when I saw a promising stretch of water, a spot I had never fished or even noticed before, though it wasn’t too far from the string of car bodies. I didn’t know what I would find, if anything. On the third cast I made contact with a twelve-inch grayling, largish for the Big Hole within my memory. Between sun-on-the-water and noon, using a small fly resembling a Tricorythodes, I caught and released as many grayling as ever. As many as I needed.

I could tell you where to look for them. I could suggest how you might fish for them, but that’s not the point here. You can find them yourself if you need to. Likewise, it’s tempting to suggest where you might send letters, whom you might pester, what pressures you might apply on behalf of these useless fish; again, not exactly the point. I merely wanted to let you know: They are there.

Irishmen, the grayling are still there, yes. Please listen, the rest of you: They are there, the Big Hole grayling. At least for now.