Friday, October 2, 2009

US Fish & Wildlife Service to consider ESA listing for Montana Arctic grayling

Press release from Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity:

[See also the document "Grayling Settlement" in the link to the right.]

For Immediate Release, October 01, 2009

Contacts: Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495;
Pat Munday, Grayling Restoration Alliance, (406) 496-4461;
Leah Elwell, Federation of Fly Fishers, (406) 222-9369 x102; and
Jon Marvel, Western Watersheds Project, (208) 788-2290

Montana Grayling to Again be Considered for Protection Under Endangered Species Act

Grayling One of Dozens of Species for which Protection is Being Reconsidered by Obama Administration

Helena, MT.— In response to a lawsuit brought by 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 again consider 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 in the U.S.,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the Obama administration will put an end to the grayling’s 27 year wait for protection.”

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 high 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 is 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 Department of Interior’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, Montana 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 concerning 52 species, of which the administration has so far agreed to reconsider decisions over 25 species, including listing decisions for the Mexican garter snake and Gunnison sage grouse, as well as now 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 or 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.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Big Hole Watershed Committee: killing grayling, again...

Today's Grayling Survival Index = -75. An index of "zero" marks the minimum sustainability point. Below that, recruitment and survival are likely to be so low that the population is in decline.

After a wet, cool summer with near record precipitation for the month of August, flows in the upper Big Hole River are below 30 cubic feet per second. This is well below the lower wetted perimeter of 60 cfs--the level at which the carrying capacity of the river channel habitat rapidly falls off.

Worse yet, it is near the arbitrary "survival flow" of 20 cfs--the level at which grayling cannot even travel from the mainstem river channel to seek refuge in cooler tributary streams ("refugia").

The Watershed Committee has a so-called "Drought Management Plan." Even with the record wet month of August, recent low river flows qualify as a drought. I have not heard that the Watershed Committee has even implemented its "Drought Plan." So much for doing everything it could to save (let alone restore) grayling.

The sooner Upper Missouri watershed fluvial Arctic grayling (i.e. Big Hole River grayling) are listed as an Endangered Species, the sooner the Watershed Committee might get around to the serious business of maintaining in stream flows.

Check out the journalism pieces (video & article) about Big Hole grayling by Jonathon Stumpf at NewWest.

From the August 2009 minutes of the Big Hole Watershed Committee:

Mike Roberts Montana DNRC - Big Hole Precipitation and Streamflow Report
Lower Basin (Dillon) – water year (107%) calendar year (113%), August (133%)
Upper Basin (Wisdom) - water year (109%) calendar year (112%), August (174%)
Above average flows have been observed most of spring and summer.
Lower Basin
Big Hole River at Melrose -- August 18 = 532 cfs (75th %ile)
Upper basin
Big Hole River at Wisdom -- August 18 = 64 cfs (70th %ile)
CCAA flow targets met at all five gages 100% of time with the exception of a few days at Wisdom that dropped below 60 cfs.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Big Hole Grayling Continue to Decline

The population of Big Hole River Grayling, the last self-sustaining native population of fluvial Arctic grayling in the contiguous 48 states, have declined by about half since 1990.

In 1990, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks electro-shocking efforts turned up 532 fish. In 2008, just 253 grayling could be found. Furthermore, the fish that are found tend to be larger and older, meaning that recruitment (successful spawning and young-of-the year survival) is declining. While a goodly portion of the 2008 fish were young-of-the-year, one swallow does not make a summer. Or, in this case, one good water year does not make up for the consistent, year-to-year dewatering of the river by irrigators.

While I applaud Montana FWP and the US Fish & Wildlife Service efforts to restore grayling habitat, it is all a matter of "Too Little, Too Late." For example, the small Steele Creek (named for homesteader Mike Steele) restoration project is the "showcase" restoration project. In 2008, 13.5 grayling per mile (GPM) were found in the Steele Creek. But in 2007 there were 23.0 GPM, and in 2006 36.1 GPM. In 2003, before restoration even began, there were 27.4 GPM.

The lesson: until Montana's fluvial Arctic grayling is listed under the US Endangered Species Act and greater restortion efforts are brought to bear (especially when it comes to keeping more water in the river), Big Hole River grayling will continue to decline.

For the future of Montana grayling, we can look to Michigan (image from


Source: Jim Magee, "Big Hole Arctic Grayling Conservation Efforts 2008," Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.