HELENA — Wildlife advocates seeking federal protections for a fish found in Montana told a judge Tuesday that state efforts to improve conditions for the Arctic grayling won't be enough to save it from the effects of climate change.
The advocates, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, are suing to reverse the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision in 2014 not to list the Artic grayling as a threatened or endangered species. The cold-water fish is threatened by warm waters and low stream flows, and rising global temperatures will only make the problems worse without federal protections, attorney Jenny Harbine said.
"The threats to these fish are real and dire," Harbine said. "Water temperatures are going from bad to worse."
Arctic grayling are abundant in Alaska and Canada. In the Lower 48 states, the fish can only be found in Montana's upper Missouri River drainages, particularly the Big Hole River and the Ruby River. Previously, the fish also was found in Michigan, but that population is extinct.
In a hearing before U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon in Helena, attorneys for the Fish and Wildlife Service stood by the federal agency's conclusion that the grayling is not at risk of extinction in Montana or of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future.
That conclusion, first made in 2014, is a reversal of the Fish and Wildlife Service's determination in 2010 that the Montana fish warranted federal protections but that other species took precedence.
Since then, new genetic data added 15 Arctic grayling populations to the five previously identified, and nearly all of those populations are on federal lands with the protection of existing federal regulations, U.S. Department of Justice attorney Nicole Smith said.
In addition, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been enrolling landowners along the Big Hole River since 2006 in a voluntary program to improve water flows and repair the habitat along the river and its tributaries.
As a result, 19 of the 20 identified Arctic grayling populations in the state are stable or improving, Smith said.
"There's nothing that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to consider," Smith said. "This boils down to a difference of interpretation in the record."
The voluntary program has done more to improve conditions than if the fish had been listed as threatened or endangered, Fish, Wildlife and Parks attorney Bill Schenk said. Water temperatures have been reduced in the Big Hole, stream flows have been reduced and structures that restricted the fish's movement have been removed, he said.
Harbine lauded the state program, but said it's not enough. "Notwithstanding these efforts, grayling are still in trouble," she said.
The federal decision did not take into account that climate change will only make the water temperatures warmer in the future, despite the improvements to the habitat, she said.
Haddon did not make an immediate ruling Tuesday.