For nearly two decades, ranchers in Montana’s Big Hole Valley have worked with local conservation groups to protect habitat for arctic grayling, a rare fish with colorful markings and a fluffy dorsal fin. But if some environmentalists get their way, these voluntary efforts could be threatened.
Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds project last week case The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking federal protections for grayling, which could result in costly land-use restrictions for valley ranchers. In 2020, the federal agency designated the fish Warrant not listed Under the Endangered Species Act, notes the success of voluntary conservation measures. But environmental groups—none of which are involved in local grayling recovery projects—to argue That “regulatory process,” not voluntary effort, is needed to protect grayling.
Unfortunately, the lawsuit not only undermines decades of good-faith compromise, it also has the potential to hurt rather than help fish species.
Arctic grayling once inhabited much of the upper Missouri River basin, but remnant river-dwelling populations are now found almost exclusively in Montana’s Big Hole Valley. In addition to supporting grayling and other valuable fish species, the valley is home to several small agricultural communities and family cattle ranches. 90 percent of the land along the river is owned by these individuals An important partner In an effort to restore grayling.
In the 1990s, low river flows due to drought and changes in irrigation threatened the Big Hole’s gray population. In response, some environmentalists began petitioning and filing lawsuits to list the gray under the Endangered Species Act. But it has done more harm than good. Because an endangered species listing usually comes with heavy land-use restrictions, landowners are often reluctant to assist in recovery efforts for fear of being responsible for the loss of the listed species.
Montana rancher Dave Cameron learned this lesson the hard way. Several decades ago, he tried to restore the species to a stream on his property but was discouraged when he learned of a possible federal listing. “People knowledgeable about the Fed’s heavy-handed approach advised me to forget the test,” he said to say In 1995 a congressional committee. Other ranchers faced similar problems, Cameron said. “Why should hosting a rare and endangered species be a threat to their livelihood rather than a source of pride and joy?”
Recognizing this challenge, local conservation groups worked with ranchers in the Big Hole Valley to develop a creative solution in 2006. The plan is known as a Candidate retention agreement with assurance, enables landowners to restore gray habitat in exchange for protection against future regulatory restrictions. Ranchers who improve streamflow, restore habitat, fence off streams from cattle grazing, or take other conservation actions will not be prosecuted if they inadvertently harm grayling. In addition, the ranchers agreed Cut back on irrigation When river levels are low, currents help increase flow when grayling are most needed.
The deal worked well. The Big Hole River has grayling populations 172 percent increase In the early 2000s, and there are numbers of breeding adult fish More than double. Today there are 32 land owners recorded in the contractWith property-specific plans for grayling facilities spanning more than 160,000 acres along the Big Hole River.
Given this success, local conservationists are wary of environmental lawsuits and a possible federal listing. Recently, the former director of Trout Unlimited in Montana said Missoula Current That while worthy of a grayling list, it will only create “a lot of heartburn and a bunch of annoying people.” A member of a local watershed group agreed, saying“If the federal government takes over, you lose all of our voluntary reservations.”
Similar concerns have plagued species recovery on private lands across the country. Threats to control endangered species have encouraged landowners to destroy potential habitat red-cockaded woodpeckers, pygmy owl, Golden-checkered WarblerAnd Many other species—To avoid all restrictions that may arise if the species inhabits the land. “The incentives are wrong here,” a former Fish and Wildlife Service director once said lamentation. “If I have a rare metal on my property, its value increases. But if a rare bird occupies the land, its value disappears.” With such incentives, it is no surprise Only 2 percent Listed species have recovered in nearly 50 years since the Endangered Species Act was passed.
Fortunately, change may be coming. This week, Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans To encourage more local conservation efforts that have helped Gray. The proposal seeks to simplify the approval process for candidate conservation agreements with assurances and other voluntary agreements, which could alleviate the perverse incentives of the Endangered Species Act, but often take more than a decade to complete. (Perhaps surprisingly, environmentalists were behind last week’s gray lawsuit Condemnation New proposal.)
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act later this year, it’s worth asking how the law can be reformed to better accomplish its primary goal: restoring species. After all, endangered species have it bad enough. We should make sure that laws designed to protect them don’t make things worse.