22 June 2007

Collaboration and the Path to Extinction

The French Vichy, the Norwegian Quislings, and other collaborators learned an important lesson that environmentalists should have learned: it is not always good to legitimatize ourselves by working with those who have radically opposed values.

“The radical center” was all the rage a few years ago. Groups such as the Quivera Coalition, led by charismatic individuals such as Courtney White, helped popularize the movement among environmentalists. At the same time, there was a rush to form watershed committees – what Peter Lavigne called “the buzzword of the 90s” – where environmentalists, developers, and ranchers would link arms and go skipping happily down the path to Oz.

A little fish has just taught us another humble lesson in the perils of collaboration. Recently, the US Fish & Wildlife Service announced that Upper Missouri River Fluvial Arctic Grayling, aka Big Hole River grayling, are 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. Montana fluvial grayling once thrived 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.

Last year, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks grayling biologist James Magee estimated that there were approximately 1,000 adult Big Hole River grayling. This year, Magee would not even hazard a guess at how many might be left. Fred Allendorf of the Montana Conservation Genetics Laboratory in Missoula believes that 1,000 to 2,000 adult fish is the minimum threshold population needed to insure viability. This makes it likely that Big Hole River grayling are what fisheries biologist 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.

Given this situation, the FWS decision has outraged environmentalists, biophiliacs, and anglers everywhere. Rightly so, given the way Bush appointees such as Julie MacDonald have bullied the agency into making political decisions that ignore good science. But many of us – environmentalist, biophiliacs, and anglers all – are complicit in the demise of grayling.

It all began in 1991, when the decidedly non-Quisling group known as the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned FWS to list the fluvial Arctic grayling throughout its historic range. When the agency decided in 1994 that a listing was “warranted but precluded,” this hit Big Hole ranchers like a brick between the eyes. Along with pressure to list the Big Hole as a “chronically dewatered stream” under Montana law, business as usual was itself an endangered species.

The ranchers appealed to then-governor Mark Racicot, the Republican Party politician who went on to manage the Bush re-election campaign. Racicot facilitated creation of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, a multi-stakeholder consensus-based group that included representatives from ranching, outfitting, local government, the tourist industry, and environmental groups such as Trout Unlimited and the Big Hole River Foundation.

At first, all went well. Environmentalists participated in and praised the watershed committee. The group made real strides regarding issues such as land use planning, invasive weed control, and a drought management plan. These all seemed like good things. Attention to fishery management helped postpone a grayling listing year by year, and it kept the environmental members from pushing for a listing.

But grayling were not at the table and neither were grayling-advocacy groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity and the Montana Wildlife Federation. These groups were explicitly excluded because there were “too radical” and “too environmentalist.” But without such advocates, grayling never had a voice. Or a chance.

Grayling continued to decline—despite or perhaps because of efforts by the watershed committee. Even the drought plan, which should have helped fish, did not. Fish need water that “belongs” to ranchers and fish populations decline sharply when flows slip below the lower inflection point for the wetted perimeter. Once flows drop below this level, the riverbed rapidly goes dry.

Like every decision made by the watershed committee, the drought plan was the product of political expediency and not science. Whereas the minimum wetted perimeter in a critical reach for grayling survival was 60 cubic feet per second, the plan allowed flows to slip to 20 cubic feet per second.

This, and other efforts for grayling recovery, were always “too little, too late.” Even now, with the FWS decision not to list, Big Hole Watershed Committee chair Randy Smith told a newspaper reporter, “With listing no longer imminent, ranchers will have more time to evaluate projects to ensure they’re the best for grayling.” Problem is, grayling have run out of time.

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