Protecting endangered species and wild places through
science, policy, education, and environmental law.

Contacts: Noah Greenwald, Ctr. for Biological Diversity (503) 484-7495
George Wuerthner, Conservationist (541) 686-0628
Jon Marvel, Western Watersheds Project (208) 788-2290
Judi Brawer, Advocates for the West (208) 342-7024



August 10, 2004. In response to a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has agreed to consider protection of the Montana Fluvial Arctic Grayling as an endangered species by April, 2007. The Grayling was first recognized to warrant protection as endangered in 1994, but because of bureaucratic delay by FWS, such protection was never finalized. A settlement agreement approved by the court establishes a timeline that ends these delays.

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 above Divide Dam. 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.

“The Montana Fluvial Arctic Grayling is on the brink of extinction,” states Noah Greenwald, conservation biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Grayling needs the safety net of the Endangered Species Act—our nation’s most important environmental law—to survive.”

Extensive water withdrawals from the Big Hole River and seven consecutive years of drought continue to threaten the Big Hole population. Since 1994, some landowners in the Big Hole Valley have been cooperating in voluntary measures to maintain flows in the river to benefit the Grayling. Because full participation has never been achieved, there are no devices to measure water withdrawal, and the river is unadjudicated, however, these efforts have not succeeded in maintaining flows and the Grayling population has continued to decline.

“Failure to leave enough water in the Big Hole River to sustain the Grayling and other wildlife dependent on the river is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons,” states noted conservationist and former Montana fishing guide George Wuerthner. “This is about more than saving the Grayling, this is about saving a national treasure—the Big Hole River.

Pressure to list the species under the Endangered Species Act has resulted in renewed efforts to conserve the Grayling. Last year, the Natural Resource Conservation Service came-up with roughly a million dollars to pay landowners to leave water in the river. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks is currently working on a “candidate conservation agreement with assurances” that they hope will obviate the need for listing by encouraging more landowners to voluntarily leave water in the river. Although these efforts are commendable, flows are presently below levels determined by Fish Wildlife and Parks to be necessary to sustain Grayling survival and recovery, demonstrating that withdrawals continue to be a problem and that listing may still be necessary.

“Endangered status for the Grayling will likely have little effect on those individuals who have voluntarily left water in the river,” states Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “For those individuals not cooperating with these efforts, however, it’s time they are regulated and kept from driving a unique part of Montana’s natural heritage to extinction.”

The groups are represented by Judi Brawer from Advocates for the West in Boise, Idaho.


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 show that grayling adapted to lake environments do not maintain their position in rivers but instead allow themselves to drift downstream. Because of these genetic and behavioral differences, FWS classified Montana fluvial arctic grayling as a “distinct population segment” which can be listed as a threatened or endangered species.


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