Feds drop plan for pipeline in Upper Red Rocks Lake

Groups said disturbing wilderness to attempt helping Arctic grayling was illegal

By: - September 18, 2023 7:02 pm

Arctic Grayling in Montana are a State Species of Special Concern. This male, collected in a fish trap, provided us with data that will help us better understand this unique species. This was taken from Red Rock Creek, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, Montana Photo by Jim Mogen | USFWS)

A controversial pipeline proposal that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service would have placed in a designated wilderness area in southwestern Montana has been withdrawn by the federal agency.

A pipeline to deliver oxygenated water to Upper Red Rock Lake at the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge was officially scrapped on Sept. 13 by USFWS Regional Director Matthew Hogan.

The Fish and Wildlife Service had originally wanted to place a buried gravity flow diversion pipeline to try to help the imperiled arctic grayling, a threatened species of fish. However, the changes to the area, designated as wilderness, require that no man-made modifications can be implemented in areas that receive the “wilderness” designation, as in the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Meanwhile, scientists are trying to keep or boost the arctic grayling numbers, and only a few population clusters remain in the Mountain West, largely in the Upper Missouri River Basin.

Scientists had hoped delivering the oxygenated water to the high-mountain lake would improve the winter survival of fish, but it would have required burying a pipeline and other changes to the wild landscape.

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a biological evaluation in February, according to the record of withdrawal, and found that the benefits would be negligible.

“The proposed action would have no effect on, or may affect but not likely to adversely affect, the species listed as threatened and endangered,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in its analysis.

Also, a federal judge granted an injunction of the project in June that stopped the plan from moving forward until a trial could be conducted, likely drawing the project out for years.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that it will look at other ways to help the struggling arctic grayling population.

“The service will focus on alternative conservation measures for Arctic grayling and continued stewardship of the Red Rocks Lake Wilderness under the Wilderness Act in collaboration with interested parties,” it said.

Any future plans must include written analysis and public comment.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.