Victory! Montana Grayling not Listed under Endangered Species Act in a Win-Win for Fish and Landowners. Groups Focused on Lawsuits, not Conservation, Unhappy

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Victory! Montana Grayling not Listed under Endangered Species Act in a Win-Win for Fish and Landowners. Groups Focused on Lawsuits, not Conservation, Unhappy

For some folks, a win is a loss. Consider the recent decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to list the Montana population of the Arctic grayling (a landlocked freshwater member of the salmon family) under the Endangered Species Act.

Not listing is a win for most. It’s a win for the grayling, which, as I’ve discussed in a previous post, depends on willing conservation by landowners. It’s a win for landowners, who are the key to the grayling’s success because they own most of the habitat. Now landowners can breathe a sigh of relief and be more open to conserve the fish, instead of worrying about being clobbered by the Endangered Species Act. And it’s a win for the federal government and state of Montana because the grayling will be better off, and they have much less concern about landowners withdrawing from successful conservation efforts. (There is a terrific article in Montana Outdoors, titled “Good for Grass, Good for Grayling” about the grayling, especially the necessity of making ranchers the centerpiece of conservation efforts)

“I think we should celebrate and give a toast to the Arctic grayling,” Don Reese, a rancher conserving the fish told ktqv.com. “Ninety percent of Arctic grayling habitat is on private lands in Big Hole valley. So in order for ranchers to address the threats to Arctic grayling, we had to change the way we feed, we had to change the way we irrigate, the times we irrigate, and sometimes the amount of water we use to irrigate.”

Jeff Hagener, Director of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle “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. We wouldn’t be here today without their cooperation.” Hagener is also reported to have said “The conservation of grayling in the Big Hole Valley is arguably one of the most significant conservation success stories in the nation. Remarkably, the over 250 conservation projects that were a part of this effort included nearly 160,000 acres. We will continue to do all we can to ensure the Arctic grayling and the diverse fish and wildlife resources in Montana remain healthy and will be sustained for generations to come.” According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, these projects included “riparian fencing, irrigation flow reductions, improved irrigation infrastructure, fish ladders, improved stock water systems, and both passive and active stream restoration.”

Sounding a similar note is Montana Governor Steve Bullock when he stated the decision not to list the grayling “is about the citizens of Montana’s Big Hole Valley. These hard-working families proved that when a small group of dedicated citizens work together, great things can be achieved. The conservation of the Arctic grayling truly is a great achievement that builds upon our rich tradition of protecting Montana’s remarkable natural resources.” Bullock also remarked to the Great Falls Tribune that the “announcement [not to list] reaffirms that when Montanans work together to conserve grayling, both the fish and the people of Montana are better off. The Arctic grayling is in good hands in Montana, under state management.”

The federal government is also happy. Dan Ashe, Director of the Fish & Wildlife Service contends “This is a prime example of what a CCAA [Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances] can do, not only for wildlife, but also for sustaining the way of life in rural ranching community. 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.” And Robert Bonnie, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was equally effusive: “Our focused federal, state and local efforts paid off not only for the Arctic grayling, but for the ranchers who voluntarily invested in long-term, sustainable conservation. This conservation success story demonstrates that voluntary conservation works when ranchers, agencies and other partners work together to conserve habitat.”

So what’s the problem? Seems like everybody involved is happy. Well, for the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that engages in armchair “paper” conservation (such as lawsuits, press releases and sound bites), not listing the grayling is bad news. “We’re going to challenge this decision,” Noah Greenwald, of the Center said to the Montana Standard. “This is part of a disturbing trend where the Fish and Wildlife Service is failing to follow the law and bending to political pressure from states. It’s not about the science, it’s just a policy call. If the states object they just roll over.” The other member of the paper conservation crowd unhappy with the grayling decision is George Wuerthner-an activist who joined some of the Center for Biological Diversity’s lawsuits to get the grayling listed, and who is also a staffer for the Foundation for Deep Ecology, the organization that believes “Nature provides the ultimate measure by which to judge human endeavors.” (Just an aside: how can nature measure and judge humans if humans do not decide what is being measured and judged?)

So why doesn’t the Center for Biological Diversity use some of the $9.3 million in revenue it accumulated in 2013 to do actual conservation for the grayling, instead of virtual conservation? After all, a few tens or hundreds of thousand dollars would go a long way towards helping the grayling, and it would be a tiny portion of the group’s budget. Apparently, the Center and its fellow travelers have no interest in tangible, boots-on-the-ground, get-your-fingernails-dirty conservation, or in leading by example. In the small world inhabited by the Center for Biological Diversity et al., they are content to sit back and criticize from the sidelines while other people do the real work.

Fortunately, there are many more people grounded in reality and the knowledge that conservation of the Montana grayling, and endangered species in general, depends on actual work and physical labor. Just as importantly, the reality-based crowd realizes successful conservation depends on the goodwill and cooperation of the landowners who harbor endangered species. Montana rancher Don Reese has the right idea. Let’s celebrate and toast all those who conserve the Montana grayling.

Brian Seasholes is a former research fellow with Reason Foundation.