Graylings Recovering

Spawning Arctic Grayling at Green Hollow Genetic Brood Reserve. Photo © Emily Cayer FWP

Graylings sound like wild beings out of a fantasy series, but in fact they’re a type of fish found all over the world in different species, some threatened with population decline, and some stable. The Arctic grayling, found in Russia and Canada but also some areas in Alaska, Montana and Wyoming, has suffered extirpation from certain spots in the latter two states during the last hundred years or so, due to anthropogenic effects. Ted Williams reports for The Nature Conservancy:

The Arctic grayling’s spotted, orange-trimmed dorsal fin looks as if it had been photoshopped. It’s half as long as the body and just as wide; and it glows with impossible shades of violet, green and turquoise. This gaudy trout cousin was deposited by the retreating glacier in the coldest, clearest waters of the contiguous states.

So common was the species in Michigan that a city, Grayling, took its name. And as recently as the early 20th century grayling abounded in the upper Missouri River system. While these fish still thrive in Alaska and Canada, they’ve been wiped out in Michigan and persist only in about 15 percent of their historic range in Montana and Wyoming.

They’re victims of dams, logging, water diversions, pollution, development, global warming and the festooning of their native water with alien fish, most notably brown trout from Europe, rainbow trout from the Pacific Northwest and brook trout from the East.

Since 1982 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has agonized and vacillated about whether or not these lonely survivors constitute a “distinct population segment” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 1991 the Service was petitioned to list them as endangered. After a three-year status review it announced that, while they indeed constituted a distinct population segment, listing was “warranted but precluded,” meaning “good idea but we’re too busy.” Instead the Service declared the segment a candidate for listing, which category affords considerable protection by frightening private landowners and state bureaucrats into action.

Litigation by the petitioners was settled in 2005 with an agreement by the Service to make a final decision on listing by April 16, 2007. Eight days after this deadline the Service proclaimed that it had gotten everything wrong, that there was no distinct segment after all, and that it was okay to let grayling expire in the contiguous states because there were lots in Canada and Alaska.

This was not the agency’s finest hour. Its own biologists told me at the time that Interior’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Julie MacDonald, had personally reversed their three-year, peer-reviewed study. On April 30, 2007 MacDonald resigned in disgrace after an investigation by the Office of Inspector General revealed she’d consistently sabotaged science by “editing, commenting on, and reshaping the Endangered Species Program’s scientific reports.”

Voluntary Efforts Pay Off

Montana’s Big Hole River, the grayling’s major stronghold, drains a watershed that’s 90 percent private ranch land. So, under the threat of listing, landowners have joined state and federal agencies and NGOs likeTrout Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy in major habitat restoration that has dramatically increased grayling range and numbers.

Read the rest of Williams’ article on Cool Green Science.

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