The little fish with the big fin will get another hard look from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see if it warrants threatened or endangered status in Montana.
Arctic grayling used to be found throughout the Upper Missouri River Basin and as far downstream as Great Falls. Today, it’s limited to about 5 percent of that historic range, mainly in the Big Hole River and its tributaries. FWS biologist James Boyd said the federal agency is beginning a new status review of Upper Missouri grayling under the Endangered Species Act.
The fish has been artificially introduced in many rivers in Montana, but occurs naturally only in the upper Missouri. It appeared to be doing well there until major droughts in 1979, ’80 and ’81. After that, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists noticed declines in grayling populations. Droughts in 2000 and 2001 exacerbated the problem.
FWS authorities found the grayling “warranted but precluded” from Endangered Species Act protection after a review in the 1990s. Another review in 2010 produced a similar result.
“At that time, we had other species with more dire need of attention,” Boyd said. “The grayling got pushed off. But now is their time and we’re taking a closer look at things.”
While not a popular game fish, arctic grayling make a dramatic presence in a waterway. They have sail-like dorsal fins with iridescent flashes of orange and green spots. They are relations of trout and salmon, needing cold, clear water to survive and breed.
Boyd said habitat loss from cattle grazing and stream dewatering may be an issue for the grayling’s decline. Competition with non-native brook trout could also contribute to the problem.
“That’s part of this process is to nail that down,” Boyd said. “We won’t be sending people out on the ground, but will be gathering everything that FWP and other groups have collected. We want to bring all available information together to address the status of the species.”
Previous concern over grayling status helped spawn an agreement with Big Hole Basin landowners to keep more water in area streams. The project has spent $3.6 million through a state and federal cooperative called the Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances Program to fence creek banks, purchase in-stream flow water from water-right holders and renovate irrigation ditches to keep grayling from getting stranded in manmade waterways. Landowners who participated in the program earned exemption from further obligations if the fish received federal protection.
For more information about federal efforts to manage arctic grayling, see fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/fish/grayling/grayling.
Anyone wishing to submit comments or research regarding arctic grayling should mail material to Public Comments Processing, Attn: FWS-R6-ES-2013-0120; Division of Policy and Directives Management; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM; Arlington, VA 22203, or send electronically at regulations.gov. After accessing the regulations.gov website, Search for Docket No. FWS-R6-ES-2013-0120 and follow the instructions for submitting comments. Information must be received by Dec. 26.