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 for Biological Diversity. “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.