HELENA, Montana — The Arctic grayling fish does not need special protections under the Endangered Species Act following years of conservation efforts by landowners and federal and state agencies to protect the fish in the upper Missouri River, U.S. wildlife officials said Tuesday.
Habitat quality, numbers of fish and genetic diversity are stable and increasing for most Arctic grayling populations in Montana, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said.
Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said he disagrees with the decision.
"We're very disappointed," he said. "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has twice recognized that the grayling is in danger of extinction and that remains true today. The grayling is one of the most endangered fish in the United States."
The Missouri River system upstream of Great Falls holds the only Arctic grayling population in North America outside Canada and Alaska. The fish are related to trout and known for a colorful, sail-like dorsal fin.
Officials said one of the most successful grayling restoration efforts has been in the Big Hole Valley, where a program in place for a decade encourages landowners to voluntarily remove threats to fish habitat.
State and federal agencies and 33 ranching families have restored riparian habitat along the Big Hole River, a tributary of the Missouri River. They also improved water flows during critical times of the year for grayling and installed new fencing to keep cattle away from the river, among other measures.
Officials said they created those safeguards while keeping Montana landowners on their land and economically viable, and enhancing the health of the upper Big Hole watershed.
Eight years ago, the picture for the grayling looked "pretty desperate," said Joyce Swartzendruber, state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She said work done since that time has resulted in 100 miles of stream improvement and an increase in habitat by 67 miles.
"There's no better example of the compatibility of working landscapes and species conservation," she said. "It is clear that farmers and ranchers can provide a livelihood for their families and an economic benefit to their communities while also providing species conservation."
The private-public partnership will be a model used throughout the country for the conservation of other species considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, officials said.
"What's clear is that when we work together, we can and do find solutions, and today we're here to celebrate an ESA success story," Gov. Steve Bullock said, referring to the act.