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Jerry Denson/

Paiute Cutthroat Trout...A Gift from a Sheepherder

The Paiute cutthroat trout is the rarest of all North American trout species. The fact that they still exist today is both a miracle of happenstance and hard work.

If you ever thought that a single person cannot have a huge impact on the survival of an endangered species, you would be wrong. It now seems that one person may well have been responsible for saving the Paiute Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii seleniris) from total extinction.

The Paiute Cutthroat Trout is without question the rarest of the world’s trout species. The Paiute Cutthroat most likely evolved from the Lahontan cutthroat between 180,000 -500,000 years ago. It has survived as a distinct species due primarily to the very small (just 11 miles) and isolated high mountain watershed  known as the Silver King drainage. The Paiute evolved after this area was cut off by a geological event.

In the 1860’s, European settlers started to inhabit the eastern Sierra Nevada area and the Basque sheepherders began to take advantage of the high mountain meadows including Silver King Creek. Over the following years, sheep and cattle grazing deteriorated the banks of the streams and several invasive species including the rainbow trout were introduced into the area waters. All of this combined with historical droughts and wildfires so that there were no longer any genetically pure Paiute cutthroats in their historic 11 mile natural range on Silver King Creek between Llewellyn Falls and Snodgrass Creek.

Enter our hero...the Basque sheepherder. His name was Joe Jaunsaras. In 1912, he collected  a few Paiute trout from Silver King Creek and moved them upstream above LLewellyn Falls. It is assumed that his intention was to develop a fishery higher in the drainage so that he and other sheepherders would have another food source closer to their grazing herds. As Llewellyn Falls is a natural barrier to fish passage, this simple act protected the native Paiute trout from total devastation and hybridization from the introduced species below the falls.

“In a few years they had increased in number until in 1924 the stream was so well stocked that fishing above the falls was better than below,” Virgil Connell, a sheep breeder who employed Jaunsaras, wrote in a 1944 letter.

In 1946, after realizing the truly limited range of the Paiute trout, the USFS (US Forest Service) and the Eastern Packers Association moved 401 native Paiute cutthroat trout (saved by our story hero) from the upper reaches of Silver KIng Creek to the North Fork of Cottonwood Creek almost 100 miles south in Inyo County.

In 1967, the Paiute Trout was one of the first animals in the nation listed as endangered under the new federal Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 (now known as the Endangered Species Act). In 1975, the species was downlisted to “federally threatened” thus allowing for a special rule that would allow the management of the Paiute trout by the State of California. In 1994, all grazing rights in the Silver King Creek area were ended to prevent further damage to stream banks and the local environment.

Throughout the 1960’s, several efforts to rid Silver KIng Creek of invasive fish failed. In the 1990’s, chemical treatment methods improved enough to consider new treatments below the falls. In 2005, just as the USFS and other conservation groups were ready to start treating the creek below the falls with a fish toxicant, rotenone, to remove all non-native fish species, another environmental group sued to stop the project and U.S. District Court in Sacramento blocked the project. This issue went through the courts until 2013 when permission to continue with the invasive fish removal plan was finally approved.

From 2013 through 2015 the removal of invasive species was finally implemented. The stream was treated with rotenone (a piscicide) to remove non-native trout from Silver King Creek and associated tributaries between Snodgrass Creek and Llewellyn Falls. Following the chemical treatment project, the CDFW (California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife), USFS and other partners including Trout Unlimited conducted a 3 year study (2016 -2018) to ensure the treatment was successful.

On Aug. 24, 2017, USFS, CDFW and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists released 86 Paiute cutthroat trout in Silver King Creek above Llewellyn Falls in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness area of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. This release was just above its historic range.

On September 18, 2019, these same groups finally reintroduced native genetically pure Paiute trout into the 11 mile stretch of Silver KIng Creek between Llewellyn Falls and Snodgrass Creek that was once home to this rare and endangered trout for some 500,000 years.

It has been almost 100 years since the Paiute cutthroat trout has “been home” in it’s true native range. We can thank a single Bassque sheepherder by the name of Joe Jaunsaras...thanks Joe!

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