25 April 2007

US Fish & Wildlife Service: Big Hole River grayling are not significant

The United States Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) announced yesterday that Big Hole River grayling, also known as “Upper Missouri River Fluvial Arctic Grayling,” are an insignificant population that is no longer a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The Arctic grayling is an elegant and beautiful relative of the trout; it has iridescent sides and a large sail-like dorsal fin marked with purple spots [see photo of sculpture by artist Jeff Artley, below] . Montana fluvial grayling were once found throughout the upper Missouri River watershed above Great Falls, today however, it survives only in a small segment of the upper Big Hole River—less than 5% of its original range [see map at end of text].

As one who has followed the plight of grayling since 1990, and who for many years was involved with the grayling restoration efforts of the Big Hole Foundation, I find the FWS decision appalling.

To arrive at yesterday’s decision, the FWS has tied fisheries science and management policy into a pretzel. The decision, found at http://www.epa.gov/EPA-SPECIES/2007/April/Day-24/, is riddled with contradictions and speculation.This decision reverses FWS conclusions in the agency’s own 1982, 1993, 1994, and 2004 reviews and findings. In its previous studies, the FWS found that Big Hole River grayling are a distinct population segment that qualified for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Don Campton, a Senior Scientist with the FWS, flip-flopped on the distinct population segment issue. In a 2004 review, he concluded that Big Hole River grayling met all FWS criteria as a distinct population. In his revised 2006 review, however, he concluded that Big Hole River grayling should be lumped with lake dwelling populations. No new information was included in the revised 2006 report as a basis for the reversed conclusion. Furthermore, FWS freely admits that river grayling are behaviorally distinct from lake grayling: in other words, lake grayling cannot be used to establish a river dwelling population.

The FWS ignored a peer-review criticism of Campton’s 2006 decision to lump river and lake grayling into a common population. Five internationally recognized fisheries biologists from Montana, British Columbia, Alberta, and Alaska sent FWS the 12-page document last year. Their objections included Campton’s narrow use of weak and inconclusive genetic evidence to reverse the distinct population segment status for Big Hole River grayling.

The bottom line in the new FWS decision is that the native population of fish in the Big Hole River is not significant. Even though Big Hole River grayling represents only a tiny surviving fluvial population in the Missouri River watershed, FWS equates the Big Hole River with Alaskan streams that flow to the Pacific and Arctic. This is equivalent to saying that it does not matter if bald eagles become extinct in the lower-48 states, since there are plenty of them in Alaska. Clearly, this is nonsense and a serious violation of the letter and intent of the Endangered Species Act.

Sources within FWS indicate that this is yet another example of political meddling in scientific decisions by Bush administration appointees. The Washington Post recently found that, “A senior Bush political appointee at the Interior Department has repeatedly altered scientific reports to minimize protections for imperiled species and disclosed confidential information to private groups seeking to affect policy decisions…” (Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post, Friday 30.March.2007, A05). The Bush appointee in question is Julie A. MacDonald, a civil engineer with no background in natural sciences. She has “repeatedly instructed Fish & Wildlife scientists to change their recommendations…” The Department of Interior is currently looking into MacDonald’s case for “potential administrative action.”

When it comes to our dwindling natural heritage, the Bush administration runs the Fish & Wildlife Service much like it has run the war in Iraq—and with the same sort of disastrous consequences. Last year, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks grayling biologist James Magee estimated that there may be fewer than 1,000 adult age Big Hole River grayling. This year, Magee would not even hazard a guess at how many grayling might be left. Dr. Fred Allendorf of the Montana Conservation Genetics Laboratory in Missoula believes that 1,000 adult fish is the minimum threshold population needed to insure viability. This makes it likely that Big Hole River grayling are what fisheries biologist Dr. Robert Behnke calls a “ghost species”—organisms that, although present in small numbers, are for all practical purposes already extinct unless extraordinary restoration measures are taken.

Because the FWS finds that Big Hole River grayling are no longer a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, this decision raises serious doubts about current efforts to implement Conservation Candidate with Assurances Agreements with Big Hole ranchers. Some conservation leaders believe that, without ESA candidacy, the CCAA is an empty shell that will soon collapse. According to Jeff Schahczenski, former Executive Director and current board member of the Big Hole Foundation, “Why would any agency spend scarce funds to recover an obscure fish that – according to the federal government – is in no imminent danger of extinction? Within a year of the government’s decision to lump river and lake grayling together, Montana or the feds might not even be funding positions for grayling biologists, let alone investing the money it takes for recovery!”

While this FWS decision is a tragedy for grayling, it is also a tragedy for science, the Endangered Species Act, and the agency itself. When politics overrides science, it diminishes public faith in science and in the many good biologists who work at agencies such as the FWS. Furthermore, it engenders lawsuits that waste everyone’s time and money—the Interior Department’s Nero (Julie MacDonald) fiddles away while yet another rare species is consigned to the flames of oblivion.

Some Montana conservationists and conservation organizations are planning a funeral ceremony for the Big Hole River grayling. For those who love Montana and its wild places and native species, this will be a last chance to say goodbye to a special piece of our heritage.
Map below (from FWS) shows original range of Montana fluvial grayling, now reduced to a small segment in the upper Big Hole River.

1 comment:

Pat Munday said...

Since posting this, I have heard from a number of folks--including Don Campton and Doug Peterson of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Campton is the genetics expert who was asked to review grayling, and who came up with the initial 2004 review finding that Big Hole River grayling were a distinct population segment (DPS), and the later 2006 review that conflated fluvial and lacustrine (lake) populations in to a single DPS. Doug Peterson is an on-the-ground fisheries biologist who has worked closely with Big Hole River grayling, Big Hole residents (the ranching community), and other agencies such as Montana FWP.

Campton blasted me for characterizing the changes in Campton 2004 vs. Campton 2006 as a "flip-flop." Campton explains that his changes "were not a flip-flop but, rather, recognition that the quality and quantity of data necessary to reject a scientific null hypothesis of equality may be insufficient at this time." He further states that, "this conservative scientific perspective was a direct result of Robb Leary's peer review of my initial draft report." While I respect Campton's expertise in genetics, the review of Campton 2006 by five of his peers does seem to indicate that there is substantial disagreement with his conclusions.

Peterson took me to task on three points: (1)He criticized me for mischaracterizing Campton's role in the FWS decision process, stating, "Dr. Campton produced a report that was part of the decision file on grayling, but the authority to make that decision lies elsewhere."; (2) He suggested that a closer reading of Campton 2006 with the recent FWS decision would show that "the two documents differ in their analyses and conclusions" and that "to synonymize Campton 2006 with [the FWS decision] is not accurate."; and (3) He pointed out that FWS did not provide a copy of the peer review (i.e. joint letter from five fisheries biologist) questioning Campton 2006 in a timely manner, and that even if Campton had been provided a copy, "Campton's report was finalized 10 months earlier [and] he was under no obligation to revise his report." Peterson closed with by admonishing me, "I sincerely wish you would have taken the time to check a few facts before making public statements that...erroneously single out individuals."

Admonishment well taken. - EcoRover (aka Pat Munday)