Voluntary Efforts Fail to Protect Highly Endangered Grayling From Excessive Water Withdrawals, Nonnative Fish and Climate Change
HELENA, Mont.— In yet another political bow to states opposed to protection for some of the nation’s most endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed course today and announced the Montana grayling will not get Endangered Species Act protection. The Service first determined the grayling warranted federal protection in 1994 and reaffirmed that conclusion in 2010. Now rather than provide protection long acknowledged to be needed, the agency says voluntary state efforts are enough to protect the beautiful fish.
Today’s decision is the fourth time in a month that the agency has reversed plans to protect endangered species, including denial of protection for the wolverine and two Rocky Mountain plants.
“Without doubt, the beautiful Montana grayling is one of the most endangered fish in the United States,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Once found throughout the upper Missouri River drainage above Great Falls, native populations of Montana grayling have been reduced to a short stretch of the Big Hole River, a few small lakes in the area, and a reintroduced, still-small population in the Ruby River. A primary factor in this range decline continues to be the dewatering of the grayling’s stream habitat and degradation of riparian areas. The Big Hole population continues to be threatened by extensive water withdrawals from the Big Hole River, which declines to a mere trickle nearly every summer.
“Fish need water to survive,” said Greenwald. “And yet, the voluntary conservation efforts that form the primary basis of this denial have utterly failed to address excessive water withdrawals that immediately threaten the survival of the grayling. There is absolutely no scientific basis for concluding that threats to the grayling have been ameliorated by the efforts of Montana or that they will be in the future.”
A member of the salmon family, the arctic grayling is a beautiful fish with a prominent dorsal fin, widely distributed across Canada and Alaska. Historically, fluvial populations of arctic grayling existed in only two places in the lower 48 states: Michigan and the upper Missouri River of Montana. Populations in Michigan went extinct by the 1930s, and populations in Montana were restricted to the Big Hole River and a few lakes by the end of the 1970s. Studies demonstrate that Montana grayling are genetically distinct from populations in Canada and Alaska.
The grayling was first petitioned for listing by the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, now the Center for Biological Diversity, and George Wuerthner in 1991, leading to the species’ first designation as warranted for protection but precluded in 1994. The grayling subsequently experienced severe declines in response to the Big Hole River nearly drying-up on an annual basis due to increased irrigation use and drought.
Fearing the extinction of the fish, the Center and others sued for protection in 2003. In 2005, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to issue a new decision on listing, but rather than list the species, it sharply reversed course and denied it protection, arguing that extinction of the Montana population would be insignificant. The Center again sued and in 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service again determined the grayling warranted protection in 2010, but again delayed protection by putting the species on the candidate list.