Species Spotlight: How collaborative conservation led to a 'Not Warranted' ESA determination for Arctic Grayling in Montana

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Arctic grayling populations, including in Montana’s Big Hole River, had been declining for decades when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 1992 first considered listing the freshwater fish under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

graylingThis installment of Species Spotlight takes a closer look at the collaborative conservation efforts since then by private landowners, conservation groups, state and federal entities. Ultimately, that work helped grow grayling populations and, in 2014, resulted in a USFWS determination that listing the species was not warranted.

Species Spotlight, a case study series examining the challenges and opportunities in species conservation, is part of the Western Governors' Species Conservation and Endangered Species Act Initiative, the Chairman's Initiative of Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.


Ranchers, agencies and conservation groups formed the Big Hole Watershed Committee in 1995 to foster collaborative conservation efforts.

By 2004, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) was funding hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of habitat restoration and payments to ranchers to keep water in streams, a critical component to encourage migration to quality habitat.

The early willingness of the NRCS to invest encouraged a host of agencies (USFWS, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Trout Unlimited, among others) to put resources in place to drive toward a successful outcome for grayling in the Big Hole.

In part, conservation actions taken on these private lands were made possible by the development of Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) between landowners, the state of Montana and USFWS. The agreements provided assurances to landowners that, if the species became listed under the ESA, they would be protected from additional regulation.

For a short time after it was established in 2006, the Big Hole Arctic Grayling CCAA became the largest in the country, with 140,000 acres enrolled. The CCAA prioritized the following conservation measures:

  • Removing barriers to migration;
  • Improving instream flows;
  • Identifying and reducing or eliminating entrainment threats;
  • Improving and protecting the function of riparian habitats;


In August 2014, the USFWS concluded that protection under ESA for the arctic grayling was "not warranted."

The outcome largely was made possible by conservation success on private lands in the upper Big Hole River. Today, 98 percent of the best habitat in the Big Hole is available for the grayling. Further, because landowners are contributing more water to streams during low-flow periods, instream flow targets are being met most of the year.

These actions have resulted in a 500-to-900 percent increase in the grayling population since it was initially considered for listing and a brighter future for the once-declining fish.

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