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Lawsuit Seeks Lifesaving Protections for Montana’s Arctic Grayling

For Immediate Release, January 30, 2023

Contact:

Kristine Akland, Center for Biological Diversity, (406) 544-9863, kakland@biologicaldiversity.org

Pat Munday, Butte resident, (406) 565-1826

Perry Wheeler, Earthjustice, (202) 792-6211, pwheeler@earthjustice.org

Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project, (307) 399-7910, emolvar@westernwatersheds.org

 

Big Hole River Needs Curbs on Irrigation Withdrawals for Grayling to Survive

GREAT FALLS, Mont.— Conservationists sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today seeking protections for Montana’s Arctic grayling population under the Endangered Species Act. The parties — the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project and Butte resident Pat Munday — are represented by Earthjustice.

Once found throughout the upper Missouri River drainage above Great Falls, native populations of Montana’s Arctic grayling are now mostly limited to a short stretch of the Big Hole River and a few small lakes in Montana. Extensive withdrawals from the Big Hole River reduce river levels to a trickle every summer and threaten the graylings’ survival. A conservation agreement implemented by the state has, to date, not restored summer flows sufficiently to sustain grayling.

“Montana will lose this beautiful fish without more water in the Big Hole River,” said Kristine Akland, senior Northern Rockies attorney at the Center. “It’s well past time for the Arctic grayling to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.”

The effort to protect the grayling has a long history of bureaucratic malfeasance. The Service considered the grayling a candidate for listing as an endangered species from 1994 until 2014, when the agency reversed itself and denied protection based on the state conservation agreement and allegedly increased numbers.

Conservation groups challenged that denial, eventually getting a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the Service’s claims of an increased population were not supported by evidence and that the agency had failed to consider climate change’s impacts on stream temperatures and flows. The Service doubled down on these claims in 2020 and again denied protection even though threats persist and the grayling’s numbers remain perilously low.

“These fish face a litany of threats including over-withdrawal of water, habitat degradation, competition from non-native fish, and now climate change on top of it all,” said Emily Qiu, associate attorney with Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office. “Too much water is already taken out of the Big Hole River and climate change will only make the situation worse.”

“Voluntary measures haven’t recovered the grayling, and are not enough to bring this unique fish back from the brink of extinction,” said Erik Molvar, executive director with Western Watersheds Project. “The compounding threats of irrigation withdrawals, livestock degradation of key spawning streams, and climate change warrant bold federal action to protect the grayling’s last remaining strongholds.”     

Grayling have been reintroduced to the Ruby River and survive in small numbers in Hebgen Lake, a reservoir on the Madison River, but both populations are struggling. They have also been stocked in many lakes outside their native range. These lake dwelling, or adfluvial, fish provide little security for the native population of primarily river dwelling fish as studies have found they can’t survive in flowing water.

“I fish the Big Hole River often and grayling are truly the jewel of the river,” said Pat Munday, a professor at Montana Tech who authored the popular book “Montana’s Last Best River: The Big Hole and Its People.” “It is incredibly sad that we must sue the Fish and Wildlife Service to follow the law and protect our natural heritage.”

Protection under the Endangered Species Act would require a federal recovery plan to be created to address chronic low flows in the Big Hole River, among other threats.

Today’s suit was filed in U.S. District Court, District of Montana, Butte Division.

Background

A member of the salmon family, the Arctic grayling is a beautiful fish with a prominent and colorful dorsal fin. The species thrives in very cold freshwater streams and rivers across Canada and Alaska.

Historically, fluvial (river and stream) 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 had become 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.

A petition for protection of the grayling under the Endangered Species Act was first submitted in 1991 by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, now part of the Center for Biological Diversity. In 1994 this led to the Service’s first finding that the grayling warranted endangered status.

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