Cutthroat trout is no picnic

After more than a decade of effort, there is still a long way to go

Fish biologist Dawn Becker Emery is familiar with the concept of swimming upstream these days, after more than a decade of fighting to save an embattled trout native to the  Walker River Basin of the Eastern Sierra.

Beset by fire,  invasive species, rising temperatures, local apathy, decreased funding, and the often unintended consequences of human decisions, the wily, high-desert-adapted native Lahontan cutthroat trout is on the federal Endangered Species list, and as such, it must by law be protected.

After years of fighting for the trout, Becker Emery, who works for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, told an audience at a Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory’s (SNARL) Green Church lecture Tuesday, May 28, that the trout was “holding on” but hardly increasing in population.

“All of the money for these trout is up north, in the Nevada area,” she said, noting that the giant, Lahontan cutthroat trout that once inhabited lakes like Pyramid Lake are making a comeback, aided by federal and state dollars.

 “But here, in the Walker River Basin that I am responsible for managing, we are barely holding our own.”

The Lahontan is an unusual trout, perfectly adapted for the sage and aspen dominated reaches of the Walker River. It is adapted to alkaline soils, it tolerates higher water temperatures than the much more common—and introduced—rainbow and brown trout that are originally from cooler European regions.

The gold-spotted native trout is also tolerant of the kind of extreme weather events that characterize the basin.

The trout, which once was numerous from Utah to Nevada to California in wetter climates and which has been known to reach 41 pounds in size, is now a fragile species. It is slow to reproduce and, after almost going extinct several decades ago, it is down to a limited genetic pot, all salvaged from a single stream in a remote region along the Nevada/Utah border.

Add the threat of climate change, Becker Emery said, and the going for the trout is likely to get even tougher.

Her talk Tuesday night reflected these issues. It was not exactly an exercise in sunny optimism.

Instead, it was a kind of education about what it takes—and what the costs are—of trying to save a species.

It was also a talk about the often unseen and unintended consequences of human decision-making and human actions.

“We had chosen two creeks to re-introduce the Lahontan to, and we were making progress when some domestic sheep were moved to grazing allotments close to these creeks,” she said.

“Because the sheep had been grazing in places where another endangered species, the Sierra Nevada Bighorn sheep, frequented, managers were worried that the domestic sheep would introduce deadly diseases to the bighorns,” she said.

In another case, a stream holding a recovering population of trout was hit by a freak accident; a diesel truck spill and fire that burned the area around the creek and damaged the habitat the Lahontan trout need to survive.

Another issue hurting the trout locally is apathy—and sometimes, outright hostility.

To prevent the trout from interbreeding with the more numerous rainbow and brown trout common to most Eastern Sierra streams—and thus destroying the cutthroat trout’s genetic purity—the Fish and Wildlife Department has used an effective—and controversial—method to remove rainbows and browns from Lahontan cutthroat trout’s ancestral streams: Rotenone, a kind of trout poison.

Between public concerns about the effects of the Rotenone and the literal removal of some much-beloved sport fish, the process has rarely gone smoothly, she said.

Aided by the agency’s ban on fishing the cutthroat, the attempts to reintroduce the trout have often left a bad taste behind, she said.

Now, the department is trying to undo the damage.

“We are beginning to understand that not allowing people to see and catch these beautiful fish actually hurts them more than fishing would,” she said. “People simply don’t care if they don’t have a personal relationship to them.”

Therein lies the hope that Becker Emery does have for the trout—the hope that with more time, the true value of the beautiful Lahontan cutthroat trout will be clear to people.

Already, the department is relying on many volunteers to help with the work it takes to bring the trout back, efforts that are paying off.

And, she said, as the attitude toward native trout changes, as they are seen as a valuable addition to angling, then perhaps the Lahontan cutthroat trout that once swam the rivers and creeks of the Walker River Basin will be back.