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Once again, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided not to list arctic grayling as endangered. But this time, the ruling is based upon the conservation efforts of landowners.

On Tuesday, the USFWS decision not to list the arctic grayling of the upper Missouri River basin under the Endangered Species Act was greeted mostly by cheers from Montana agencies and landowners in southwestern Montana, who called it a conservation success story.

“Montana has worked to restore arctic grayling for the past 25 years, and we’ve depended on support from private landowners every step of the way. This success story begins with the 33 ranching families who live and work along the river and saw the value in restoring grayling,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Jeff Hagener.

After assessing the changes that landowners have made in an effort to improve streamflow and water quality in the Centennial and Big Hole River valleys over the past decade, the USFWS decided that the fish is no longer in danger of extinction.

That wasn't the case just a decade ago, and a few question whether it really is the case now.

As of the 1930s, the Big Hole River was home to the last population of migratory arctic grayling in the continental U.S. Other populations of arctic grayling exist, but they have a different life history, residing permanently in lakes throughout the West.

The migratory or fluvial grayling swim miles to spawn in the cold, clean water of upper tributaries and then return to lower reaches.

Its habitat dwindled throughout the West due to the construction of dams and irrigation diversions to where the Big Hole was the only river left without dams. But as climate change has started to reduce winter snowpack, dewatering in the Big Hole has worsened such that less than a few hundred fish remained after 2000.

A recent U.S. Geological Survey report showed that flows in the Big Hole River have dropped noticeably since 1960.

The USFWS listed the Upper Missouri arctic grayling as sensitive in 1982.

In 1991, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for listing. Three years later, the service decided the fish warranted an ESA listing but put it on a list of candidates along with more than 250 other species awaiting protection.

After the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups sued in 2003 and again in 2004, the USFWS agreed to make a decision by 2007.

In 2007, the conservation groups sued again when the USFWS came back with a decision not to list the grayling.

In 2009, the service reversed itself, saying the grayling needed protection but once again, the fish was put on the candidate list to await Tuesday's decision.

In 2004, worried by the threat of an ESA listing, Big Hole area ranchers, led by Wisdom rancher Cal Erb, signed up to make fish-friendly improvements under a voluntary Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances.

The USFWS developed the CCAA program in 1999 to provide incentives to landowners as long as they engage in active conservation of sensitive species.

With the help of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the federal Natural Resources and Conservation Service, landowners have completed 250 projects such as installing fish ladders and fencing around riparian areas, improving irrigation efficiency and stock water systems so less water was diverted from streams, and restoring stream habitat.

The CCAA contributed about $3.6 million to the various projects.

The USFWS claims the grayling population has more than doubled since 2006.

USFWS director Dan Ashe said the population increase shows that the CCAA can be beneficial to both wildlife and the rural way of life.

“The conservation progress for arctic grayling would not have been possible without the amazing support we have received from willing landowners and other partners in the Big Hole River and Centennial valleys,” Ashe said in a news release.

George Wuerthner was a plaintiff in some of the lawsuits to list the grayling. He pointed to FWP surveys from 2012 that found about three adult grayling per mile in a 19-mile stretch of the Big Hole River. That's more than the one fish per mile found in 2000, but three fish per mile is hardly recovered, Wuerthner said.

“It's like the FWS thinks that just because it has agreements, the fish will recover. I can't say for certain, but this has the appearance of a political response rather than one based on scientific merits of the situation,” Wuerthner said.

Center for Biological Diversity spokesman Noah Greenwald agreed, saying the ranchers' efforts were laudable, but they weren't sufficient justification not to list the grayling.

The Big Hole basin drought plan establishes streamflow thresholds where ranchers have to start cutting back their water use, but Greenwald said many headgates have no measuring devices for enforcement.

“Voluntary conservation efforts have failed to address the primary threats to the grayling, namely dewatering. The river drops below those thresholds almost every summer,” Greenwald said. “It doesn't make sense to measure conservation efforts based upon participation. The only meaningful measure would be improved flows in the river.”

Greenwald said the Center for Biological Diversity would probably challenge the decision.

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Laura Lundquist can be reached at llundquist@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-1234.

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