Montana Grayling: Final Push for ESA Listing
(Special Thanks to George Wuerthner for this article and Dr. Ralph Maughan
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking comments on the proposed listing
of the Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus) under the Endangered
Species Act (ESA). Following the status review, the Service will either publish a proposed rule to protect the
Arctic grayling under the ESA, or a withdrawal from candidate status in the Federal Register by Sept. 30, 2014.
This may be the final step in the long drawn out effort to provide federal protection for this iconic
The plight of the grayling, like many native fish in the West is tied to
livestock production. Directly and indirectly livestock production is the major factor in grayling decline. As a
result of the political clout
of the ranching industry, the agencies responsible for grayling
recovery including the Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MDFWP) as well as the US Fish and Wildlife Service
(FWS) have had to operate with one hand tied behind their backs. Their walking orders are to do nothing that would
antagonize the ranchers. The machinations that have befallen the grayling are a clear example of how political
considerations trump the biological criteria that are supposed to guide ESA decisions.
LISTING UNDER ESA FIRST PROPOSED IN 1991
In 1990 I was clandestinely contacted by several Montana Dept. Fish, Wildlife
and Parks fishery biologists who were concerned that their department was not aggressively addressing the threats
to the grayling. They asked me to seek federal protection on behalf of the grayling under the ESA.
In 1991 I and the Biodiversity Legal Foundation filed a petition to list the
grayling. It was our collective hope that ESA listing would provide the legal muscle to implement changes in
habitat management to the benefit of the grayling that MDFWP, the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service
and other agencies were unable or unwilling to do without the club of the ESA hanging over their heads.
By 1994 the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had determined that the grayling
was indeed headed for extinction and warranted protection under the ESA. However, listing was precluded according
to the Service because other species were in greater peril—a common ploy to avoid listing controversial
Numerous attempts to gain listing since 1991 have failed as a result of
political interference from Congressional members and the Bush administration, opposition from the Montana Dept. of
Fish, Wildlife and Parks as well as the co-opting of environmental groups by ranching interests. Groups like
Montana Trout Unlimited (TU) have actively fought against listing. Instead TU and other organizations have sought
to cozy up to the ranchers and advocated modest modifications in livestock management instead of actively seeking
The effort to list the grayling and provide the federal protection it deserves
under the ESA is a good example of Machiavellian logic and deceit. During the next decade, grayling numbers
continued to plummet, but listing was avoided by numerous political machinations. After the initial decision by the
FWS to list the grayling as a candidate but with no further movement I and others made repeated follow up requests
to the Service to upgrade the grayling’s status.
In March of 2004 the FWS finally bumped the grayling priority from a level nine
to a level three, the highest priority level for a candidate listing. In May 2004, I and others, petitioned for
emergency listing of the grayling to try to move it from candidate to protected status. After nearly three
years of delay, the Fish and Wildlife Service responded to our petition in April of 2007. Instead of listing the
grayling, the FWS reversed itself due to interference from the Bush administration, and determined the grayling no
longer deserved special Distinct Population Status at all and removed it from candidate status. This decision was
legally challenged by the Center for Biological Diversity and others.
In 2009, after the election of Barack Obama, the FWS again reversed itself, and
remanded the 2007 decision, and conducted a new review of the Distinct Population Status (DPS). In September of
2010 the FWS concluded that the grayling was indeed listable under the DPS. It was once again given a priority
level three candidate status where it remains today.
FAILURE OF COLLABORATION
Whether listing in 1991 when I first petitioned for ESA protection would have
reversed the decline of grayling can be debated, but collaboration with ranchers has not produced the desired
recovery of the fish. During this intervening period, Missouri River grayling populations have declined by an
average of 7 percent a year and now number less than half of their 1990 numbers. In many remaining waters, the
effective breeding population of fish numbers in the low hundreds—and grayling are in essence already functionally
extinct. For instance, in the 113 miles of occupied grayling habitat in the Big Hole River, it was estimated by the
early 2000s there were around 200 adult fish—or little more than one grayling per river mile. In 2012
researchers found an average of three grayling of 1 year age per mile in a 19 mile stretch that was surveyed.
Whether grayling can be recovered in most of the remaining occupied habitat at this point is questionable, but
certainly worth trying.
GRAYLING DISTRIBUTION AND HABITAT
Arctic Grayling are found in cold clear waters across the Boreal Ecoregion in
both North America and Eurasia. The Missouri River Arctic Grayling are an ice age relict and considered a
genetically distinct population. The ancestral Missouri River once flowed north to Hudson Bay and the predecessors
of today’s fish were isolated in the Upper Missouri when Continental Glaciers blocked the river’s northward flow
and shifted its waters east and eventually to the Mississippi drainage and ultimately the Gulf of
A beautiful fish with a large dorsal fin and shimmering purple sides, the
species reaches its southern limits in the colder waters of Montana’s Upper Missouri River drainage. Lewis and
Clark were the first to record the species. At that time, grayling were found in the Sun, Smith, Gallatin, Madison,
Red Rock, Beaverhead, Jefferson, and Big Hole rivers. (There are unconfirmed reports that grayling may be native to
the St. Mary’s River near Glacier National Park). The next closest population of grayling is found hundreds of
miles further north in the Pembina River west of Edmonton, Alberta.
By 1990 when I became involved in grayling issues, the fish was restricted to
the Big Hole River drainage, Upper Red Rock River drainage, and a small portion of the Madison River near Ennis,
Montana. Natural populations of grayling were also found in a number of lakes in these drainages, including Miner
Lakes and Mussigbrod Lake in the Big Hole drainage and Upper Red Rock Lakes in the same named river drainage.
(Note that Arctic Grayling have been stocked in lakes outside of its historic range so one may find them in various
other water bodies). The last significant refuge for Missouri River grayling is the Big Hole River where the fish
are found in approximately 113 miles of the main stem and 45 miles of tributaries between Glen and Jackson,
Montana. Today Arctic Grayling only occupy about 4-5 percent of their historic range in the Upper Missouri
The FWS estimates that, with the exception of the fish in Mussigbrod Lake, the
remaining strongholds for grayling including the Big Hole River have a 13-55% change of extinction in the next 30
years simply due to random stochastic events.
REASONS FOR GRAYLING DECLINE
The major factor in grayling decline can be summarized in one word—cows.
Livestock production has multiple negative effects on grayling.
The biggest impact is dewatering of rivers for hay irrigation. Dewatering of
the Big Hole River in particular has been exacerbated by a number of drought years. In June the river often runs at
over 2000 CFS, but in summer during irrigation season, it can be drawn down to 20 CFS, with some portions of the
river dried up completely.
Water draw downs affects grayling in several ways. First, reduction in water
flows forces all fish into smaller pools of habitat, increasing the competition among grayling as well as other
fish for food and security.
Reduction in water flow creates shallower river channels that heat up more in
summer sun, with in-stream temperatures often climbing to lethal levels during extended hot periods. Indeed, in
most summers, the Big Hole River exceeds Clean Water Act standards for temperatures. For instance in during
the summer of 2012, ten out of eleven temperature monitoring stations in the river exceeded 70 degrees, the thermal
threshold for salmonid species (like the grayling).
Run off water from irrigated fields that is not lost to evaporation also tends
to be warmer, and sometimes full of pollutants such as manure and fertilizers.
Irrigation barriers and diversions in streams (small dams designed to shift
flow into irrigation channels) also act as barriers to upstream migration of grayling that might otherwise seek out
colder headwater streams.
Dewatering for irrigation often completely dries up grayling spawning streams,
killing any eggs or fry that are in them. Entire recruitment for a season can be lost.
Young grayling that are hatched in tributary streams and move downstream during
the summer months can wind up in irrigation ditches instead of the main river. At the end of the season when
irrigation gates are closed, grayling are trapped in irrigation ditches that subsequently dewatered killing all
fish in them.
Loss of adequate flows is probably the biggest factor in grayling demise. But
cattle also impact grayling habitat by trampling and compaction the wet meadows, headwater springs, and other
natural sponges that are a source for up to half of the late season flows in these rivers.
Trampling by cattle of the riparian streamside vegetation also harms grayling.
Breakage of banks by cattle hooves contributes to widening of stream channels (and subsequently less pool habitat
and higher water temperatures) with fewer deep pools which is the ideal grayling habitat. Cattle browsing on
willows, as well as changes in hydrology due to livestock impacts, have significantly reduced streamside
vegetation, eliminating shade which contributes to higher and often lethal temperatures for grayling. Trampling of
stream banks by cattle also contributes to higher erosion and sedimentation in streams. Even non-grazed areas
are impacted. For instance, portions of Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge that are closed to livestock
grazing, still suffer from sedimentation flowing into the refuge from upstream livestock grazing damage.
This sedimentation flow resulting from accelerated erosion not only smothers
grayling spawning beds, but fills in and reduces the deep pools that are a necessary component of grayling
over-winter habitat. For instance, due to livestock induced sedimentation, the average depth of Upper Red Rock Lake
in Red Rock Lakes NWR has shrunk from 25 feet to 16 feet in the last century.
Unlike northern grayling populations that co-evolved with top predatory fish
like bull trout, lake trout, and northern pike, throughout its Missouri River range, the grayling has lived without
an apex predator. Except for small grayling populations that co-existed with lake trout in Miner Lake in the Big
Hole drainage, and Elk Lake in the Red Rock drainage, grayling did not co-exist with any top predatory
Although the evidence is unclear, it is assumed that competition with
non-native trout like rainbow trout, brown trout and brook trout have impacted grayling populations.
Circumstantial evidence suggests non-native fish do limit grayling since nearly all attempts to restore grayling in
streams with competing non-natives have thus far been unsuccessful (though there is limited evidence for grayling
recruitment in the Ruby River). Competition that may exist with non-native fish like brook trout is exacerbated by
irrigation dewatering and the shrinkage of habitat associated with water draw downs. So once again, livestock
production may be culpable for grayling decline induced by non-native fish competition.
DAMS FRAGMENT AQUATIC ECOSYSTEMS
Another suspected cause of the grayling decline in the Upper Missouri River
system is the loss of migratory function. Many grayling populations migrate long distances between spawning habitat
and over winter sites. I once witnessed a grayling migration in the Kobuk River in Alaska where thousands of fish
stream past me as they were descending the river as it froze to overwinter in deep holes in the lower river.
Similar migrations once likely occurred in the Upper Missouri River. However, numerous dams have been built on
these rivers, including on the Big Hole, Beaverhead, Madison, Ruby, Jefferson, Sun, and Red Rock. For instance, the
Ennis Dam on the Madison River is known to block grayling migrations, and any fish that fall below the dam cannot
return back upstream and are lost from the population. Nearly all of these dams were built for irrigation
water storage—thus yet another impact of livestock production upon grayling survival.
Historic effective breeding population of grayling in the Upper Missouri system
was an order of magnitude of 10-100 times greater than today. Due to the fragmented nature of grayling populations,
combined with current small population numbers, random genetic drift may jeopardize the future of the fish as
maladaptive alleles are spread throughout the remaining fish populations. At least in the short term,
reestablishing grayling populations across entire river drainages like the Big Hole and Red Rock River seems highly
unlikely, which makes modification of grazing practices and livestock operations even more critical to the fish’s
The wild card in the grayling’s future is climate change. Regional temperatures
are predicted to rise an average of up to 10 degrees in the next century. Warming temperatures could prove even
more lethal to grayling populations if water flows are not substantially improved. Earlier spring run-off could
also influence grayling by reducing late season flows.
FIDDLING WHILE ROME BURNS
MDFWP has spent many man hours studying and attempting to restore grayling with
limited success—manly because they are not permitted to address the fundamental issue of livestock production
impacts in a meaningful way. Nevertheless, the agency has attempted to restore grayling in several rivers including
the Sun River upstream from Gibson Reservoir and in the Upper Ruby River near Twin Bridges, Montana. The Ruby River
efforts appear to be paying off, with reproduction reported for four years in a row.
However, all these efforts seem to be motivated more from a desire to preclude
listing than to recover the grayling.
One of the ways that the FWS has avoided listing of the grayling so far (even
though it determined as early as 1994 that the species listing was warranted) was by signing off in 2006 on a
Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA). The CCAA was implemented by Montana Dept. of Fish,
Wildlife and Parks in an attempt to preclude listing of the fish. Ranchers, who agreed to voluntarily implement
habitat improvement mechanisms like planting of willows on riparian areas or releasing more water during drought
periods, would be protected against any future restrictions designed to restore the grayling, should the fish be
listed. Over 30 landowners in the Upper Big Hole River have signed on to the CCAA.
The CCAA has spent $3.6 million (most of it tax dollars) to subsidize various
projects designed to improve grayling survival and preclude listing. Among some of the improvements resulting from
the CCAA and other efforts is a small increase in summer stream flows, removal of some barriers on tributary
streams, and fencing of riparian areas. However, the overall effect has been far short of what is needed to
stabilize, much less recover the grayling.
Groups that have supported the CCAA and generally thwarted efforts to list the
fish include Trout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy. In their view, listing would have had little positive on
the ground effects on the fish. They believe that the CCAA offered the best opportunity to improve conditions for
the grayling. While undoubtedly some of the habitat improvements that have resulted are positive for the fish, the
outcomes thus far are not very promising, as the grayling continues to slide towards extinction. If the grayling
should be listed, the CCAA will limit the legal options for recovery.
Even in the face of obvious political machinations and duplicitous manipulation
of data and biological information during the past two decades, these groups remained silent. Personally, I will
consider them culpable if the grayling goes extinct for their failure to alert the public to the fish’s plight and
work EVERY angle, including legal protection of the ESA designed to recover the fish.
Listing would have created a legal mandate for enforcement of the Clean Water
Act minimum standards for water temperate, mandated grazing changes on federal lands managed by the Forest Service
and BLM which control 50% of the grayling habitat, including much of its spawning habitat. It may also create
opportunities to challenge dewatering of the Big Hole River by irrigators.
At this point, it is my sincere hope that the FWS finally lists the grayling,
and provides a legal safety net that can result in significant changes in grayling management.