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The Sad Tale of Montana’s Arctic Grayling: a Case Study in Agency Maleficence



Arctic Grayling. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Grayling are one of the unique fish species found in Montana, and part of its natural heritage. Occupying less than 10% of its former historic habitat, the fish is in jeopardy of extinction. Political interference and agency intransigence are the major obstacles for reversing the fish’s fortune. As such, the grayling is case study in how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses stalling tactics to avoid listing controversial species under the Endangered Species Act.

The grayling played a formative part in my life. When I was a teenager I dreamed of catching grayling in Montana, and the fish is one of the reasons I attended the University of Montana to study wildlife biology.


The Montana Arctic Grayling is a beautiful fish with steel gray-blue color and a distinctive large dorsal fin. It lives in cold water across Alaska and northwest Canada, but a small relict population is found in the Upper Missouri River. The ancestral Missouri River once flowed to the Arctic Ocean, however, during the Ice Age, Continental Glaciers blocked the river’s northward flow and diverted it east and into the Mississippi drainage, leaving the grayling isolated in the headwaters.

The Montana population of grayling was once found in nearly all rivers of the Upper Missouri system including the Sun, Smith, Gallatin, Jefferson, Big Hole, Red Rock, Ruby, and Madison. Grayling are now confined to a limited number of waters, including a 60-mile stretch of the Big Hole River, a small section of the Madison near Ennis, Montana, a few tributaries to Upper Red Rock Lake in Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and Miner Lake and Mussigbrod Lake in the Big Hole drainage. The grayling has also been reintroduced into the Upper Ruby River.


These small sub-populations are all vulnerable to extinction due to random stochastic events, and occupy just a fraction of their historic range.

The grayling is threatened by competition with introduced fish, degradation of riparian areas along spawning streams, dams, low water flows as a result of irrigation withdrawals, which in turn has led to increasing summer temperatures. In the face of climate change, these water withdrawals may exacerbate the effects of low water and high temperatures.

By the 1980s biologists noticed that the Big Hole grayling population was declining. In 1991, I sought to have the grayling listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Stalling activities to avoid listing have gone on for decades, and all the while the grayling population has declined. More recently I have been joined by co-petitioners Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biodiversity and Pat Munday in our attempt to force the FWS to finally recognize the fish’s precarious hold on existence.

Listing the grayling under the ESA has been vigorously opposed by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, local ranchers, and Montana’s Congressional delegation. In all likelihood, the failure to garner protection of the species is a direct consequence of this spirited opposition, and in particular, Congressional pressure to keep the fish off the ESA list.

The FWS previously recognized that the grayling living in the Upper Missouri River of Montana qualify as a “distinct population segment” or DPS meaning it has significant evolutionary and genetic differences from other grayling populations to warrant saving.

In 2010, the FWS determined that the grayling qualified for listing to preclude its extinction in the lower 48 states, citing low abundance, stream dewatering, habitat degradation and inadequate regulatory mechanisms as its rationale for listing. However, though “warranted”, the FWS also determined that other species were even in greater risk of extinction, precluding the grayling’s listing—a common excuse used to deny listing for politically controversial candidates.

While awaiting official listing, in 2014 the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) arbitrarily reversed itself and determined that the Montana population of Arctic Grayling no longer qualified for protection under the ESA. Due to this apparently politically motivated decision on the part of the FWS, the plaintiffs, including myself, are requesting the courts reverse this capricious decision and reinstate ESA listing for the grayling.


The 2014 decision not to list was based primarily on the creation of a Big Hole River Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (“CCAA”), which requires voluntary actions such as fencing riparian areas, and more efficient irrigation methods to increase water flows in the river by private landowners. The creation of the CCAA is in my view a stalling tactic that the FWS and MDFWP have used to delay listing.

The other justification for denying listing was the establishment of a second population in the Ruby River, which, however, has an estimated total of only 54-179 breeding fish—a ridiculously low number that in no way guarantees long term population viability.

The problem for the FWS is that its actions do not comport with the “best available science” and the agency failed to demonstrate that there was a rational basis for denying listing. For instance, though the FWS acknowledged that the greatest immediate threats to the fish’s continued existence are low water flows and high water temperatures—the FWS determined that these on-going dangers no longer warrant listing, even though they still threaten the fish.

For instance, due to irrigation water withdrawals from the river, temperatures in the main stem of the Big Hole regularly exceed 70 degrees. This is considered “unsuitable” for —and sustained high temperatures can be lethal.

One of the problems with relying on a voluntary CCAA is its failure to maintain suitable water flows during drought years. Not surprisingly when drought occurs ranchers use even more water to irrigate their hay fields, and less water remains in the river.  I’ve seen sections of the Big Hole River reduced to a trickle with a series of pools which results in high water temperatures.  For instance, in the low flow years of 2012 and 2013, monitoring stations consistently recorded temperatures above 70 degrees and some stations reported temperatures above 77 degrees which are considered lethal to grayling.  Similar high water temperatures are a potential threat for grayling in the Madison River and Red Rock River systems.

The FWS also based its decision to deny listing on projected future improvements in riparian areas. Cattle regularly trample the spawning streams of grayling, and while some improvement has occurred largely as a result of fencing efforts—paid for by taxpayers—whether these improvements will be sufficient to preclude future declines of the fish are speculative at best. The FWS cannot deny listing based on projected future improvements that may or may not occur or work.

The FWS also reversed its position on the threat of extinction posed by low population. In 2010, the FWS determined that four of the five native grayling populations were at risk of extinction simply due to their very small populations. Random stochastic events such a major drought or flood or disease can quickly cause a small population to spiral down to zero.  While the grayling populations have fluctuated over the past decade, the overall trend appears to be downward.

Small population size also poses a longer-term threat from the loss in genetic diversity. For instance, the effective breeding size of the Big Hole subpopulation is only estimated to be 371 fish and 12.5 fish in the Ruby River. These are hardly reassuring numbers.

Another failure of the FWS is its refusal to consider the threats over its historic range. Keep in mind that grayling are reduced to less than 10 percent of their former occupied habitat. By its own definitions if a species has declined over a “significant portion of its historic range” the agency is required to bring about its restoration. We might argue about what the word “significant” means, but most reasonable people would conclude that a 90% reduction is sufficient reason to list the fish and further its recovery.


It is clear that the FWS decision to preclude listing of the grayling and its 2014 decision not to list the fish at all is arbitrary and unscientific. Unfortunately, the FWS seems unwilling to perform its mandate under the ESA to list species in peril. Rather, of late, the agency refuses to list species that are politically controversial, leaving environmental groups no choice but to sue to force listing.

Although I am not privy to the FWS inner workings, I suspect the agency regularly looks for any excuse to  deny listing to avoid the political fire storm that might result. The recent decision not to list the sage-grouse which has also suffered a huge population decline across its range is a prime example.


The unfortunate consequences of this practice are many and severe:

First, many deserving species are denied the protection they deserve under the law, and will decline further towards extinction before they can be listed and given regulatory protections.  Waiting until species are in even more dire straits complicates recovery, making it less certain and more expensive.

Second, the FWS often spends a tremendous amount of money doing its initial evaluations, and then denies listing even over the scientific recommendations of its staff, only to eventually list the species after spending more money and time defending its unfounded decision. It would be much more efficient, and beneficial to species, if the agency would follow the science in its first decision.

Third, the continuous over-riding of agency biologists’ recommendations is demoralizing to the FWS staff. Too often these people spend a considerable time researching and putting together a scientific based evaluation only to find it over-ridden by political expediency.

The case of the grayling offers an inside view of the stalling tactics and other shenanigans used by federal and state agencies to avoid species listing and reveals how political interference and pressure from Congressional delegations can hinder the legal obligations of the agency.  The good news is that ultimately the legal system usually works to override the agency recalcitrance and I still believe that the grayling will eventually gain ESA listing.

However, listing is only the beginning of the effort to save a species. After listing, federal and state agencies often have to be forced—again by litigation—to implement protection and safeguards designed to bring about the species recovery.

My hope is that the grayling will once again swim in many of the headwater streams of the Missouri and be there a hundred years from now to thrill and delight all wildlife lovers.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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