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.