Upstream battle: Once thought extinct, native Lahontan cutthroat trout are on the rise

Stocking of the Pilot Peak strain of Lahontan cutthroat trout has been taking place in Lake Tahoe since 2019. Provided/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — For hundreds of years, the Lahontan cutthroat trout swam in the alpine rivers and streams of the Sierra Nevada and the salinic desert lakes of the Great Basin. Known for its red-to-orange throat, the fish was a staple for the Washoe and Northern Paiute tribes before Western settlers began overfishing, disrupting spawning grounds, erecting dams, and introducing nonnative species to the waters. By the late 1930s, after years of habitat degradation, the fish — the only trout native to Lake Tahoe — was thought to be gone for good.

Forty years later, however, a chance discovery by a biologist in a remote stream kicked off decades of work in local hatcheries and a focus on restoring native spawning grounds on the Truckee River and other tributaries. Today, the Lahontan cutthroat trout is swimming back from the brink. It’s a story of righted wrongs and the power of partnerships, and proof that conservation efforts — even for just one species — have a trickle-down effect for the whole ecosystem.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe operates a hatchery for Lahontan cutthroat trout to aid in the stocking of the threatened species. Provided/Farmers Conservation Alliance.

Losing ground

Before settlers began altering the habitat of the Lahontan cutthroat trout, populations flourished from Lake Tahoe down the Truckee River and into Pyramid Lake. The Pyramid Lake fish would swim far up the Truckee River to safely lay their eggs in the pebbly bottoms, while the Lake Tahoe schools traveled up the numerous perennial streams to spawn.

But human impact began to take its toll. The 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada, resulted in devastating clearcutting of forests in the Tahoe Basin and beyond, coating the rocky river beds with sawdust and eroded soil. With a mature weight of around 40 pounds and a similar taste to salmon, the Lahontan cutthroat were also harvested in mass and sent in train cars to restaurants in San Francisco and back east. And in the 1900s, the Derby Dam was constructed on the Truckee River to divert water into the Carson River watershed for irrigation, impacting the flow rate of the waterway and preventing the fish from swimming to their preferred cooler waters upstream to spawn. Meanwhile, as the Lahontan cutthroat trout began to decline, other non-native species like kokanee salmon, rainbow trout and lake trout were introduced.

The last spawning of the Lahontan cutthroat was witnessed below Derby Dam in 1938.

An innovative new fish screen designed by Farmers Conservation Alliance allows native Lahontan cutthroat trout to swim up the Truckee River to its historic spawning grounds. Provided/Farmers Conservation Alliance

A chance discovery

In the 1970s, renowned fish biologist Robert Behnke was working in a remote stream near the Nevada-Utah border when he discovered a fish he believed to be the Lahontan cutthroat trout. Though smaller in its transplanted stream habitat, Behnke believed it to be the subspecies of cutthroat that flourishes to massive sizes when in lake habitats like Tahoe and Pyramid. At the time, there wasn’t testing available to confirm his discovery, but in 1995, the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, began raising and researching the trout found in Pilot Peak.

In the early 2000s, Mary Peacock, an associate professor of biology at the University of Nevada, Reno, started developing ways to genetically test if the small trout found in the Pilot Peak stream were indeed the same apex predators that once inhabited the Tahoe and Truckee watersheds. By extracting and comparing DNA samples from Lahonttan cutthroat trout mounted in museums dating back between 1872 to 1911, Peacock made a positive identification.

Halfway through incubation, eyes of the developing embryo are visible through the transparent egg. Provided/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“So the genetic legacy of the Lake Tahoe population and the Pyramid Lake population were preserved in this really unlikely transplant [to a stream] that occurred somewhere in the 40s before both populations were extricated,” notes Lisa Heki, project leader with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services.

In 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, began stocking the Pilot Peak strain back into its native waters of Pyramid Lake. In 2019, stocking began in Lake Tahoe. Last year 200,000 Lahontan cutthroat trout were released into Pyramid Lake and 50,000 in Lake Tahoe with plans to increase to 100,000 this summer.

“My hope is, and the purpose of this program that I lead is, to get to a point where the population can maintain itself naturally,” says Heki.

Removing obstacles

For over 100 years, one obstacle remained in restoring the historic spawning route for Lahontan cutthroat trout between Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake: Derby Dam.

The first project by the newly formed Bureau of Reclamation, Derby Dam was erected in 1905 and diverted water from the Truckee River to the arid Lahontan Valley for irrigating 73,000 acres of croplands. Though it changed farming for Nevada, it also altered the flow of the river, drastically dropped the water level of Pyramid Lake, and cut off the Lahontan cutthroat trout’s path to spawning grounds further up the Truckee River.

“In the early days of Reclamation, we were all about building dams and building canals. At the time we thought the people needed the water, right? We didn’t necessarily think about what it did to the environment,” says Scott Schoenfeld, operations and maintenance division manager for the bureau’s Lahontan Basin Area Office. “But of course things changed and we all figured out what these dams were doing to the environment, the fish populations and even other animals.”

Reclamation began to focus more on the environmental impact of its projects in the 70s with the approval of the Endangered Species Act, added Schoenfeld. The Lahontan cutthroat trout was listed as endangered in 1970 and downgraded to threatened in 1975.

In 2001, Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a fish bypass around Derby Dam, and in 2021, installed a $35-million fish screen designed by the nonprofit Farmers Conservation Alliance that reconnected the Truckee River path for the trout between Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake.

For the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, raising and releasing Lahontan cutthroat trout and cui-ui (a large sucker fish endemic to the desert lake) at the Pyramid Lake Fisheries reconnects them with their land and culture. And restoring this historic passage for the fish is an important step in reclaiming their native waterways.

The return of the Lahontan cutthroat trout to Pyramid Lake is a meaningful event for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, whose ancestors have harvested the trout for centuries. Provided/Farmers Conservation Alliance.

“The name of our people, the Pyramid Lake people, is Kuyuitakuda (Eaters of Cui-ui). The Walker Lake people are called ​Agai Ticutta, or Trout Eaters. It’s part of who we are. It’s very important for our people,” notes Dan Mosley, director of Pyramid Lake Fisheries. Angling opportunities for both tribal members and visitors at Pyramid Lake are a big part of the local economy, too.

The return of the Lahontan cutthroat trout is also a boon to the continued restoration of Lake Tahoe’s famed clear waters, which flow down the Truckee River and end in Pyramid Lake.

“The uniqueness of this particular lake form of trout is just such an amazing conservation story and a story of resiliency for both the habitat and this species,” adds U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Heki. “It just shows people that conservation can work and can be beneficial for local communities and economies as well. Having the top predator that is native to that ecosystem in Lake Tahoe will be a critical feature in the success story of Lake Tahoe’s health down the road.”

Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2022 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.

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