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HELENA (AP) — Environmental groups filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wednesday, seeking greater protection for the Montana fluvial Arctic grayling.

Without protection under the Endangered Species Act, the rare fish could go extinct, the groups say.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Western Watersheds Project, and part-time Livingston resident George Wuerthner, filed the lawsuit in Washington, D.C., stating that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has failed to adequately protect the fish by failing to list them as an endangered species.

"Fish and Wildlife has delayed listing the grayling for over two decades," said Noah Greenwald, who works for the Center for Biological Diversity in Bozeman. "Further delays will result in the extinction of the last fluvial population of grayling in the continental U.S. and a unique part of Montana's natural heritage."

The group said FWS already concluded in 1994 that river-dwelling grayling probably warranted federal protection but hasn't done anything to protect it. FWS endangered species staff did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

The fish, a member of the salmon family, was once found throughout the upper Missouri River drainage. Now, Montana's Big Hole River is home to the last self-sustaining population in the lower 48 states.

But the groups say that extensive water withdrawals from the Big Hole River and four consecutive years of drought continue to threaten the population there. They said a voluntary agreement between irrigators and wildlife officials in the area has not done enough because some landowners have not participated.

Greenwald said more habitat and river protections will need to take place to ensure grayling make a full recovery. He said 2002 FWP tests recorded the smallest grayling population since monitoring began in 1978.

State wildlife officials have been trying to establish populations of the fish in other rivers, such as the Ruby, Sun and Missouri.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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