In response to a lawsuit brought by the Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Federation of Fly Fishers, Western Watersheds Project, Dr. Pat Munday, and former Montana fishing guide George Wuerthner, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed today to reconsider the Montana fluvial arctic grayling for protection as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. According to the court-approved settlement agreement, a decision on the grayling’s status will be made by August 30, 2010.
“The Montana fluvial arctic grayling is on the brink of extinction,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the Obama administration will put an end to the grayling’s 27-year wait for protection.”
“The last Arctic grayling in the lower 48 states need water to survive,” said Earthjustice attorney Tim Preso, who represented the groups in the case. “This settlement gives the Obama administration a chance to erase the mistakes of the past and recognize the urgent threat to this species.”
The grayling was first recognized as a candidate for protection in 1982. In 2004, this status was reaffirmed, and the grayling was recognized as being a priority for protection because of imminent threats of a high magnitude. Despite this recognition, the Bush administration sharply reversed course in 2007 and denied the grayling protection. Rather than concluding grayling were not endangered, the administration instead decided that extinction of the Montana population would be insignificant. The decision was one of many influenced by former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald, who resigned after an investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general found she had bullied agency scientists to change their conclusions and improperly released internal documents to industry lobbyists and attorneys.
“During the many years of delay of protection, the grayling’s status has only gotten worse,” said Dr. Pat Munday, director of the Grayling Restoration Alliance and longtime Butte resident. “If the last river-dwelling population of the grayling in the continental U.S. is to survive, further action must be taken to reduce water withdrawals from the Big Hole River.”
Once found throughout the upper Missouri River drainage above Great Falls, the fluvial arctic grayling has been reduced to a single self-sustaining population in a short stretch of the Big Hole River. 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 and seven consecutive years of drought continue to threaten the Big Hole population. In recent years, so few grayling have been found that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have not been able to estimate their populations, suggesting grayling populations are on the brink of extinction.
“The grayling is a unique part of the natural heritage of Montana,” said Leah Elwell, conservation coordinator for the Federation of Fly Fishers. “Loss of the grayling would be a terrible tragedy for anglers, Montanans, and the nation.”
In response to litigation, the Obama administration has to date agreed to reconsider dozens of decisions by the Bush administration denying species protection or limiting the amount of designated critical habitat. The Center for Biological Diversity alone has sued to overturn Bush administration decisions covering 52 species, of which the administration has so far agreed to reconsider decisions over 25, including listing decisions for the Mexican garter snake and Gunnison sage grouse, as well as the grayling, and critical habitat designations for the northern spotted owl, California red-legged frog, California tiger salamander, arroyo toad, and others.
In their challenge of denial of protection for the grayling, the groups are 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 that is 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 by the end of the 1970s. Studies demonstrate that Montana fluvial arctic grayling are genetically distinct from populations in Canada and Alaska, and genetically and behaviorally distinct from lake populations in Montana and other states. Studies also show that grayling adapted to lake environments do not maintain their position in rivers but instead allow themselves to drift downstream.