Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, July 22, 2020


Noah Greenwald, Center for Biological Diversity, (503) 484-7495,
Jenny Harbine, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2084
Pat Munday, (406) 565-1826

Trump Administration Denies Montana Grayling Endangered Species Protection

Overdraft of Big Hole River, Climate Change Place Fish at Immediate Risk of Extinction

BUTTE, Mont.— The Trump administration denied protection today to the Montana arctic grayling, a member of the salmon family now found in just 4% of its historic range.

“Montana’s grayling hang by a thread,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Trump administration’s denial of protection puts politics over science and places these spectacular fish at immediate risk of extinction.”

Today’s decision follows a long series of delays by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Service determined the grayling warranted endangered status in 1994 and 2010, but continuously delayed protection before denying it outright in 2014.

Represented by Earthjustice, the Center, Western Watersheds Project, George Wuerthner and local angler and college professor Pat Munday sued to challenge that decision. As a result the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in 2018, ruled that the Service had failed to consider climate change’s effects on stream temperatures and flows. The court also found that claims of an increased population were not supported by evidence. The agency was directed to issue a new determination of the grayling's status.

This new decision repeats the agency's previous errors.

Once found throughout the upper Missouri River drainage above Great Falls, fluvial populations of Montana grayling have been reduced to a short stretch of the Big Hole River and a small population reintroduced in the Ruby River. Additional populations also occur in a small number of lakes, where some of the grayling are native and some are introduced. Extensive water withdrawals from the Big Hole River that draw down the river to a mere trickle every summer continue to severely threaten the Big Hole population.

“With increasing drought and warm temperatures, Arctic grayling face a harrowing future,” said Jenny Harbine, a staff attorney with Earthjustice. “Now is not the time to declare ‘mission accomplished,’ but to double-down on our commitment to protect this unique fish and the cold-water habitat it needs to survive.”

The agency denied the grayling protection based on voluntary efforts by private landowners and the state of Montana guided by a conservation agreement in place since 2006. Although many individual projects to improve habitat have been completed under the agreement, the grayling continues to face many threats and survives in very small numbers.

“I fish the Big Hole River often and, like many anglers, find our grayling to be the jewel of the river and part of our heritage,” said Pat Munday, a college professor who authored a popular book about the Big Hole River. “Grayling and the Big Hole River need guaranteed minimum flows, because most years the river is severely dewatered by irrigation. Climate change makes this situation even worse.”

Adding to a long list of clearly imperiled species denied protection by the Trump administration, the Service today also denied Endangered Species Act protection to the Elk River crayfish, rattlesnake-master borer moth and northern Virginia well amphipod.


A member of the salmon family, the arctic grayling is a beautiful fish with a prominent dorsal fin, 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 and a few lakes by the end of the 1970s. Studies demonstrate that Montana grayling are genetically distinct from populations in Canada and Alaska.

The grayling was first petitioned for listing by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, now the Center for Biological Diversity, and George Wuerthner in 1991, leading to the species’ first designation as warranted but precluded in 1994. The grayling subsequently experienced severe declines in response to near drying of the Big Hole River on an annual basis caused by increased irrigation use and drought.

Fearing the extinction of the fish, the Center and others sued for protection in 2003. In 2005 the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to issue a new decision on listing, but rather than list the species, sharply reversed course and denied it protection, arguing that extinction of the Montana population would be insignificant. The Center again sued, and in 2010 the Service again determined the grayling warranted protection, but again delayed protection by putting the species on the candidate list.

Montana arctic grayling. Photo courtesy of Pat Clayton. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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