Feds Decline Protections for Long-Disputed Montana Fish

An Arctic grayling is shown in Emerald Lake in Bozeman, Mont. U.S. wildlife officials have rejected special protections for the fish species that’s been at the center of a decades-long court dispute. (Ben Pierce/The Bozeman Chronicle via AP, File)

(CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that endangered species protections for a certain population segment of the Arctic grayling are no longer necessary, claiming the future for the long-beleaguered fish is “shining brightly.”

The Upper Missouri River distinct population segment (DPS) of Arctic grayling, a freshwater salmonid held in high esteem by anglers, has been at the heart of a legal dispute for nearly three decades. In 1991, the Biodiversity Legal Foundation and wildlife photographer George Wuerthner petitioned Fish and Wildlife to list certain populations of the Arctic grayling as endangered, citing a series of environmental and habitat threats that several populations were experiencing in certain areas of the county.

This led the service to submit a series of findings on the petition over the next few years, several of which found themselves challenged in court. This ultimately came to a head in in 2014 — over two decades after the initial 1991 petition — when Fish and Wildlife published revised findings on the Arctic grayling in response to a lawsuit.

The service found endangered species protections for DPS Arctic grayling were not appropriate at the time and removed the fish from the candidate list, saying that the previously identified habitat threats had been improved to the point where they were no longer meaningful factors. The service said that out of the 20 identified populations of Arctic grayling, 19 were either stable or increasing.

This conclusion did not sit well with some environmental groups. Several months after the 2014 findings, the Center for Biological Diversity, Western Watersheds Project, and two individuals sued the Department of the Interior and Fish and Wildlife challenging the determination.

After a lengthy legal battle and a series of appeals, an appellate court found in 2018 that while much of Fish and Wildlife’s findings were sound, some of the population data reliance needed to be corrected. The court gave the service until this month to revise and release its findings.

On Wednesday, the service did just that.

In revised and published findings, Fish and Wildlife again said endangered species protections for DPS Arctic grayling are not warranted. The agency found efforts by organizations as part of a “Big Hole Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances” — including improving river flows, repairing riparian areas and removing fish barriers — alleviated threats to the species.

The agency said that while potential threats and environmental stress factors must always be considered, most of the Upper Missouri River Arctic grayling observed face no harm.

“Overall, we found that the potential threats we evaluated are having minimal impacts in most populations within the DPS,” the service found. “Fifteen out of the 19 populations occur in high-elevation lakes primarily on high-quality habitats on federal land, are considered stable, and have minimal to no impacts from stressors.”

In the Big Hole River in Montana, one of the larger homes for the population segment, over a decade of conservation work and sound population management have drastically improved habitat conditions for the fish and have more than addressed many of the previously outlined past threats, the service said.

Even climate change will not have a significant impact on the Arctic grayling going forward due to the natural environments many of the populations live in, according to the agency.

“Despite projected increases in temperature and frequency of drought, 15 out of 19 populations in the DPS are currently in lake habitats that will likely not be affected significantly by climate change due to their high elevation, intact riparian areas, and cool inputs of tributary water,” the service found.

Taken together, these factors do not support the fish’s placement on the endangered species list according to the agency.

Fish and Wildlife also declined to extend protections Wednesday to the Elk River crayfish, the rattlesnake-master borer moth, and the Northern Virginia well amphipod.

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