Feds Again Delay Long-overdue Protections for Montana Grayling

For Immediate Release, September 7, 2010

Feds Again Delay Long-overdue Protections for Montana Grayling

Helena, Mont.— In response to a lawsuit brought by conservationists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today determined the Montana grayling, a fish in the salmon family, warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, but that such protection is again precluded by listing of other species considered a higher priority. The grayling was first identified as possibly in need of protection in 1982 and has declined sharply during this almost 30-year wait.

“The Montana grayling’s nearly 30-year wait for protection is a travesty,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center. “Like the previous administration, the Obama administration is failing to provide prompt protection to wildlife that desperately need it and has failed to substantially reform the long-broken program for protecting species under the Endangered Species Act.”

The grayling was first petitioned for listing by the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and George Wuerthner in 1991, leading to the species’ first designation as warranted but precluded in 1994. The grayling subsequently experienced severe declines in response to near drying of the Big Hole River on an annual basis caused by increased irrigation use and drought. Fearing the near-extinction of the fish, the groups 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, sharply reversed course and denied it protection, arguing that extinction of the Montana population would be insignificant. Today’s decision, which resulted from yet another suit filed by the groups in 2007, corrects this false justification, but rather than list the species it again delays protection.

“During the many years of delay, grayling have been pushed closer and closer to extinction,” said Dr. Pat Munday, director of the Grayling Restoration Alliance and long-time Butte resident. “If the last river-dwelling population of grayling in the continental U.S. is to survive, further action must be taken to reduce dewatering of the Big Hole River.”

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 and a few small lakes in the area. A primary factor in this range decline was, and continues to be, the dewatering of the grayling’s stream habitat and degradation of riparian areas. Extensive water withdrawals from the Big Hole River continue to threaten the Big Hole population. In recent years, so few grayling have been found in the Big Hole River that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have not been able to estimate their populations, suggesting those populations are on the brink of extinction.

“The last Arctic grayling in the lower 48 states need water to survive,” said Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “Further delay of protection for the grayling places the species at tremendous risk of extinction and is a waste of resources.”

Said Tim Preso of Earthjustice: “There will always be pressure from someone to take the water or land that our imperiled wildlife need to survive. That’s what’s happening with the arctic grayling. The Endangered Species Act provides a counterbalance to that pressure, but it can only work if the listing process works as the law intended.”

In addition to the grayling, there are currently 244 species that are waiting for protection. Most of these species have been waiting for decades. To date, the Obama administration has not substantially increased the pace of species listings. It did finalize protection for 51 species from Hawaii, but in the continental United States has only finalized protection for one plant and proposed protection for 15 species. This means there will be few listings finalized in the remainder of 2010. Under the Clinton administration, a total of 522 species were listed for a rate of 65 species per year.

“The grayling’s tortured path to protection is a textbook example of bureaucratic avoidance, incompetence and waste,” said Greenwald. “With threats, including pollution, urban sprawl and logging growing every day, there’s no justification for delaying protection for species in need.”

The administration argues it lacks resources to list more species, but the budget for listing of species has nearly tripled in the past 10 years, with little increased output.

The suit was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, Federation of Fly Fishers, Dr. Pat Munday and George Wuerthner. In their challenge of denial of protection for the grayling, the groups were represented by Tim Preso and Jenny Harbine of Earthjustice.

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.

USFWS Warranted But Precluded Finding 9_7_2010 Grayling



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  1. Virginia Avatar

    Once again, the disgraceful USFWS makes a stupid decision. How can they even make an ignorant statement that the extinction of a species is insignificant, whether it be fish, bird or mammal? It disgusts me and the filing of the lawsuit and the statement by Earthjustice that this administration is as bad as the last when it comes to listing wildlife is a tragedy. It is shameful, especially when you find out that this listing was needed 30 years ago. Argh!

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    This also a fish where local livestock owners have received a lot of undeserved publicity how they are helping keep water in the the few streams that have grayling.

    The fact is it just isn’t true.

  3. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

    Ralph is right on. In fact, the NY TImes, the paper of national record, was fooled on April 1 (opening day for trout fishing in NY, but a day for tricks) a couple of years ago, with a full write up of an award-winning “docudrama” (I cannot call it a documentary) from The Nature Conservancy singing the praises of irrigators and cattle growers in the Big Hole River Basin in Montana.

    The Federal and state governments have been subsidizing the leasing of water stolen from the Big Hole River Basin and the imperiled Montana fluvial grayling, with the Montana Water Court now legitimizing illegal water grabs in the Montana Water Rights Adjudication.

    Anyway, some of the land barons of the Big Hole receive public welfare money for not using all the water that they stole by expanding their water rights from at least the 1950s to the present claims that use many more cubic feet per second (:cfs:), irrigate many thousands of additional irrigated acres, for extended periods (even year-round which we know is a joke in the Big Hole)… and cattle barons don’t even have to file for water rights for watering an indeterminate number of cows.

    Despite all these efforts including restoring habitat in one trib, but forgetting to secure instream flows (dry as a bone, but fish need water!), there are only about 200 breeding adults left in this Distinct Population Segment (“DPS”) in a short reach from Wisdom to Jackson, MT. Compare that to what Lewis and Clark described for the entire Upper Missouri Watershed including not only the Big Hole, but also flyfishing “meccas” like the Madison, Jefferson, Gallatin, and Beaverhead – this fish is going down the tubes, despite government welfare to the land barons.

    What a shame! Obama or Bush – doesn’t seem to matter. It will probably go extinct and then the Big Lost River mountain whitefish, another glacial relict that is also highly susceptible to global climate change (warmer, hotter, less water), will follow suit and brought to its “knees” by out of control greedy irrigators, who just want to grow some hay for some cows.

    All this because of some arbitrary and capricious ESA handbook “rule” by the FWS for prioritizing listing species that always places monotypic genera ahead of imperiled species, then subspecies, and finally DPSs. Never mind that taxonomy and systematics have little to do with ecological reality but rather are human-imposed organizational system so that we can keep track of the great natural diversity of biota.

    While ichthyologists have been grouping (or clumping) species and subspecies, even genera (like rainbow trout and cutthroat trout joining their anadromous cousins in Oncorhynchus and abandoning the long-standing genus Salmo) others like herpetologists have adopted modern molecular genetics techniques to keep describing and splitting off new “species” that cannot even wait for hard-copy journals, but rather depend on online peer-reviewed publications. So while less and less native species, subspecies (we recently “lost” the recognized subspecies of cutthroat trout – the Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout – now just another Yellowstone cutthroat trout), and DPSs exist for fishes, birds, and other taxa, reptiles and amphibians keep expanding as full species.

    Under this arcane “rule”, freshwater fishes that are in trouble are more likely to perish, while populations of herps might gain Federal protection under ESA. It has little to do with biological reality, but rather the FWS and politicians buying into the “Illusion of Technique”.

    With the cards stacked against the Montana fluvial grayling as well as the Big Lost River mountain whitefish, people will only get to experience them in jars of formaldehyde in ichthyological collections.

    Of course, the real reason for not listing relates to rich land barons, campaign donations, and politicians not willing to do the right thing if it threatens their feathered beds … or comfortable offices, power, and perks. In Washington DC, whether Democrat or Republican, the message on the wall is large and legible – don’t mess with Western water… or else.

    Larry Zuckerman

  4. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Larry Zuckerman,

    Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge about the realities of few remaining grayling in Montana’s (and so America’s) rivers.

    I wish this beautiful fish was not in such bad shape. I do remember stumbling upon a lake in the Beartooth Mountains back about 1980 that had grayling. They tasted as good as they looked. Of course, this was a lacustrine grayling, but I doubt they are doing well either.

    1. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

      I fished Bearttooth Lake in the 1980s and caught Montana adfluvial grayling (derived from the Red Rocks Lakes hatchery stock), brown trout, brook trout, cutthroat trout, and rainbow trout. Quite a mixed bag! Although, I had to hike over to another lake nearby in the Beartooths to catch a golden trout.

      It is interesting that the FWS’ recent genetics studies finds that the native Montana fluvial grayling and two adfluvial populations in the Big Hole River Basin remain genetically isolated from Montana adfluvial grayling (Red Rocks Lakes) that were repeatedly stocked on top of them.

      Ralph – they certainly are beautiful fish and deserve to live not only in their remnant reach in the Big Hole River but throughout the entire Big Hole River Basin as well as the rest of the Upper Missouri River Basin, upstream of Great Falls, MT. To me they have historic significance because of Lewis and Clark “discovering” and describing them in their journals.

      Their beauty is greatest while they are alive and swimming underwater, but symbolically they quickly fade once caught, brought to the surface and handled.

      Let’s hope that WWP and its partners continue the good fight for their preservation and recovery.

  5. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Larry Zuckerman,

    The grayling I caught were upstream from Beartooth Lake, so they had apparently spread.

    At the time I didn’t know much about grayling. I do remember their color faded.

    I had no knowledge until just now about past stocking practices for grayling in Montana. It sounds like they didn’t know much about what they were doing except stocking some fish.

    1. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

      yes, they stocked grayling as well as golden trout. In the case of golden trout in Montana and in Yellowstone National Park, it was quite fortuitous for them since they were basically extinct in the native California Sierra Nevada stream habitats. The transplanted golden trout were actually returned back to California, once pure ones were discovered in YNP. About the only case of non-native fish stocking gone good!

      Montana adfluvial grayling are also stocked in high mountain lakes in Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado, all hatchery strains derived from the Red Rocks Lakes adfluvial grayling. They tried reintroducing Arctic grayling back into Michigan streams multiple times after the Michigan fluvial grayling went extinct, but to no avail. The fisheries managers most likely used Montana adfluvial grayling instead of Montana fluvial grayling, which might have stood a better chance of re-establishing Arctic grayling in places like Grayling, Michigan.


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