Grayling Headed To Extinction

Grayling possess a large dorsal fin, and depend on cold, clear water for survival. Photo George Wuerthner 

In 1991, I, with the help of Jasper Carlton at the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to list the Arctic Grayling (sometimes called Montana Grayling) under the Endangered Species Act.

My petition was prompted by the concerns of several Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department (MDFWP) fish biologists. The biologists were concerned that MDFWP wasn’t showing much concern about the decline of grayling in the Big Hole River because they did not want to antagonize the livestock industry. I will get into the reason for this concern in a bit.

By the 1980s, I had a reputation as an outspoken livestock grazing activist, and the biologists needed someone to work outside of their agency to help save the fish. So they contacted me about the grayling’s plight and sent me the latest population trends and other materials to put together my listing petition. In other words, without the assistance of these dedicated biologists, I would not have had the science to petition for listing.

I am also indebted to Jasper Carlton, who had worked on listing woodland caribou in northern Idaho. Jasper, though not a lawyer, had studied the legal requirements for listing.

We pulled together a listing petition. And in 1994, the FWS determined that the Montana grayling was approaching extinction. Still, as was standard then, they said other species were in greater danger of extinction, so we received a “warranted but precluded” decision.

In other words, the grayling was gone from 95 percent of its original distribution, and the population trends were downward; without intervention, the grayling would likely go extinct. But the FWS had other species whose future was even less certain.

It is now 33 years later, and I am still waiting for the grayling to be listed. The story of the grayling is an example of how agencies and specific industries like the livestock industry work to delay, delay, and delay federal protection for the fish. My cynical view is that the agencies supposed to protect the fish hope they will go extinct. End of story. End of having to deal with a controversial species.


Grayling in Montana is a relic of the Ice Age. They are related to trout and salmon and, like these other fish, require cold, clear water. (Grayling in northern rivers of Alaska, and Canada are still abundant.)

Historically, grayling were native to flowing rivers in the Arctic Ocean, including the Missouri River. However, when Pleistocene glaciers moved south into northern Montana, they blocked the northward flow of the river.

Big Hole River near Wisdom, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

One of the ecological strategies of the grayling is migration. In the Big Hole River, grayling migrate as much as 50 miles between wintering sites in deep holes to spawning habitat in tributary streams.


Livestock production has several significant impacts on grayling survival. Irrigation withdrawals by ranchers for hay production in summer significantly limit flows in the Big Hole to the point where I have seen the river reduced to a trickle in some years.

Low flow on the Big Hole River due to irrigation withdrawals. Photo George Wuerthner 

Low water leads to higher water temperatures that can be lethal to grayling. Also grayling are concentrated in the remaining pools where they must compete with other fish for food, holding water, and hiding cover.

Manure from livestock leads to water pollution with greater algal growth and reduced dissolved oxygen.


Though the FWS repeatedly has determined that grayling is declining and may face extinction, MDFWP and the livestock industry have used delaying tactics. In 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service approved a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). The CCAA allows ranchers who work on grayling habitat improvements are protected against any future ESA requirements.

CCAA designation means that even if future research demonstrates that a new strategy could save grayling from extinction, participating ranchers won’t have to make additional changes in ranching practices.

Of course, it has taken years to determine whether CCAA contributes to grayling survival, and in 2014, the FWS denied listing based on CCAA implementation.

In 2020, environmental groups appealed that decision and won. However, once again, the FWS determined that the listing of the Arctic grayling was unwarranted.

Meanwhile, grayling numbers in the Big Hole River continue to decline, almost to functional extinction.

Cattle grazing along a tributary of the Big Hole River. Photo George Wuerthner

The latest lawsuit filed in January asserts that since the early 1990s when I petitioned for grayling listing, the Big Hole grayling population has declined by 50% or more. Big Hole grayling’s estimated 2022 adult spawning population is between 496 and 671.

Irrigation diversion on Big Hole River, directs river water to hay fields. Photo George Wuerthner 

As drought and climate warming continue, the sure way to give graylings a chance to survive into the next century is to provide them with more water in summer and to reduce the livestock destruction of riparian habitat, which maintains shade that cools water and provides grayling hiding cover from predators.


The FWS is fiddling while Rome burns. This delay is partly due to the influence of Montana’s Congressional delegation, which has pressured the agency to find any reason to deny listing. In addition, MDFWP, who are supposed to manage species like grayling for public benefit under the Public Trust Doctrine, is leery of listing because they do not want to antagonize the ranching community they depend upon for access to private lands for hunters and anglers. It’s important to note that all the fishery biologists I have had contact with are grayling advocates, but they do not control the decisions of MDFWP directors.


  1. Jerry Thiessen Avatar
    Jerry Thiessen

    Cowboy politics and climate change are the driving forces behind nearly all environmental issues in the Intermountain west. We continue to lose on both fronts. Kiss the grayling goodbye.

  2. Monica Avatar

    My opinion is sad and disgusting how the government,politicians of that state don’t care ranchers don’t care Montana is a beautiful state but the people are the problem. No love for nature and wildlife. I am sad for what happened to the grayling and if we could make the change then I will stand and oppose to this not to happen

  3. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Thanks George for this update – sad as it is. You write: “in 2014, the FWS denied listing based on CCAA implementation… In 2020, environmental groups appealed that decision and won. However, once again, the FWS determined that the listing of the Arctic grayling was unwarranted.,, Meanwhile, grayling numbers in the Big Hole River continue to decline, almost to functional extinction.”

    Question: Since the environmental groups WON their appeal, what is being done to get the federal law-enforcement agents or other authorities to ENFORCE THIS RULLING and order the IMMEDIATE LISTING OF THE GRAYLING under the Endangered Species Act, the irrigation pumps to be turned off, and livestock to be removed from riparian areas?

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Enforcement of decisions these agencies disagree with always seems to be a hill too high to climb!

    2. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      In the U.S. corrupt form of government, the executive branches of the government are solely responsible for enforcement. So a court can give us a good ruling, and even explicitly rebuke an agency, but unless the court finds the heads of the agency in contempt and jails or at least threatens to jail the heads of the agencies, the agencies can just ignore the court rulings. The agencies are all captured by the industries they’re supposed to regulate, and a lot of the agency heads have even worked in those industries. As I learned when I first started interning in an environmental law office, the agencies are enemy, their not friends of the environment.

      1. Ed Loosli Avatar
        Ed Loosli

        So, since the Courts have given a good ruling in favor of the Grayling and other species, and since the Executive Branch has been captured by the livestock industry and is not enforcing the Court Order, the Court should now charge the government officials in charge of not enforcing the Court ruling with CONTEMPT OF COURT and if the officials still do nothing they should be ARRESTED AND JAILED. This is called “The Rule of Law” in our democratic society.

        1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
          Jeff Hoffman

          Yes, but I don’t remember EVER seeing that happen. The vast majority of judges don’t have the guts to confront powerful agency heads in that manner. They’re lucky I’m not a judge, because they WOULD all be in jail until the enforced my court orders.

      2. Ed Loosli Avatar
        Ed Loosli

        George;; Have the environmentalists who won the Court Case supporting the Arctic Grayling and its habitat gone back to the Court to demand that the executives in the Federal Government responsible for enforcing this Court ruling be held in CONTEMPT OF COURT – AND BE JAILED IF THEY DO NOT COMPPLY??

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I don’t understand it either. Just have to keep pushing for a listing and/or better protections, and keep the issue in the public eye as much as possible. A terrible shame.

  5. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    Jasper Carlton was one of the best environmentalists I worked with in Earth First! in the 1980s. He lived in Montana at the time, and told me a story about him closing a road in a National Forest on his own (physically) for environmental reasons. A ranger he knew confronted him about it, saying, “Jasper, you can’t just close a road!” We had a good laugh about that.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Now that’s dedication!

      They are going to remove four dams at the Lower Columbia, but it will be dragging out until 2028. I hope the salmon can survive till then! I wasn’t aware that at least a couple of salmon species are already gone? I hope it is local and not total extinction.

      I don’t understand why this isn’t important to people, to save an animal that has a right to live, and is so iconic and beautiful. Our priorities are all wrong.

      1. Ed Loosli Avatar
        Ed Loosli

        Hi Ida:: Just to be clear, the dams on the Columbia River SYSTEM they plan to remove are actually the four lower dams on the Snake River which flows into the Columbia. The huge dams on the Columbia River like the Bonneville Dam are going to remain, at least for now. The massive dams on the Columbia River have major fish ladders built into them and apparently they are not blocking the salmon as much as the four dams on the lower Snake River.

        1. Ida Lupine Avatar
          Ida Lupine

          Thank you for clarifying!

        2. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
          Jeff Hoffman

          Perhaps Ed, but we should oppose all dam(n)s always. The only ones on this planet who have any business building dams are beavers. All human dams are destructive. Earth First!

        3. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
          Jeff Hoffman

          Perhaps Ed, but we should oppose ALL dams always. They are all destructive to the natural world and harmful to the life there. The only ones who have any business building dams on this planet are beavers. Earth First!!!

      2. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
        Jeff Hoffman

        It’s not important to people because the vast majority of people are human supremacists, aka anthropocentric. They feel and think that humans are better and more important than the Earth and the nonhuman life here, and they act that way.

        Human supremacy is the WORST form of supremacy, because it causes all of the environmental and ecological harms, destruction, and death that humans do. Humans need to evolve mentally and spiritually so that they expand their empathy and wisdom, and are thus no longer willing to do these immoral things that benefit themselves while harming everyone/everything else. Any ideas on how to get humans to evolve in this manner, I’m all ears.

      3. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
        Jeff Hoffman

        It’s not important to people because the vast majority of them are human supremacists, aka anthropocentric. That’s the worst kind of supremacism because of all the great harms, death, and destruction it causes to the natural world and all the life there.

        Humans need to evolve mentally and spiritually so that they are no longer willing to do things that benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else on the planet and the planet herself. This evolution would necessarily include a great expansion of wisdom and empathy so that humans no longer feel and think the uncaring way they do now about the natural world and the nonhuman (and even human!) life there.

  6. Jack Chesnutt Avatar
    Jack Chesnutt

    One of my fondest fishing memories is watching my wife catch a beautiful grayling high up on the Big Hole River. it was a quick glimpse of the fish, because our guide wanted the grayling back in the water as quickly as possible. The thought of these creatures falling victim to climate change, warming water and cattle poop is a tragedy. That bureaucratic foot-dragging is also a factor is infuriating.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner