The Lahontan Cutthroat - A Conservation Victory

Here is a brief version of the Lahontan Cutthroat story with a few links for more information if interested.

Based on a recent article in the Reno Gazette Journal..."The recovery of the Lahontan cutthroat trout is a true resurrection story. Weighing in at 40 pounds, with stories of the trout getting up to 60, the Lahontan is the largest species of cutthroat trout. The fish are characterized by their crimson red-orange slash marks on the throat under the jaw with black spots scattered over their steel gray to olive green scales. They are Nevada's state fish and hold a cultural significance to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe." 

In October of 2018 Orvis published an article titled Fish Facts: Lahontan Cutthroat (Oncorhynchus clarki henshawi) that provided good background on the reasons for the demise of the Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT). "Lahontan cutthroats are native to the tributaries of what was once Lake Lahontan—a huge ice-age lake, of which Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe are remnants, in northwestern Nevada and extending into northeastern California and southern Oregon. These native waters include the drainages of the Truckee, Humboldt, Carson, Walker, and Quinn Rivers, as well as a few smaller streams. The species now inhabits a fraction of its former range, and both stocking and hybridization with other trout species have blurred the boundaries. For instance, Because it tolerates water too alkaline for other trout, Lahontan cutthroats are stocked in alkaline lakes outside its native range, including Lake Lenore in central Washington and Lake Mann in Oregon."

"Lahontan cutthroats suffered virtually every indignity that man could throw at them, resulting in huge population crashes throughout the range. According to the USFWS, there were 11 lakes and 400 to 600 streams inhabited by Lahontans in 1844—numbers that have been reduced to five lakes and fewer than 130 streams. Aside from overharvesting, the Truckee River—the main spawning stream—was dammed; Lake trout, brook trout, other cutthroat species, and rainbow trout were introduced to Lahontan waters; irrigation systems dewatered streams and lakes, and poor grazing practices led to the deterioration of stream habitat. Lahontan cutthroats were classified as an endangered species in 1970, although that was later relaxed to “threatened.”"

From the article referenced earlier, The Gazette Journal article "Thought to be extinct, Lahontan cutthroat trout rediscovered"  by Mike Wolterbeek, University of Nevada, Reno..."The building of the Derby Dam in the early 1900s, along with the introduction of invasive species, overharvesting, human water consumption and changing precipitation regimes, began ticking away at the population of the trout, and by the 1940s the fish was extirpated (root out and destroy completely) from its native habitat throughout the Truckee River watershed."

As the article states, by the 1940's biologists could find no sign of the genetically pure LCT anywhere in its native range. Unknown at the time, "In the early 1900s, before Fish and Wildlife Services existed, a wildlife commission took small fish from Pyramid Lake and Lake Tahoe and placed them in streams in eastern Nevada and across the border in Utah. Many of the streams already had populations of fish, but the Pilot Peak streams were fish-less, and the Lahotans survived.

""They took them out on trains and took them in buckets and threw them out everywhere," Peacock (University of Nevada, Reno Associate Professor of Biology Mary Peacock) said. "So they stuck in this little stream out in the middle of nowhere, and they managed to make it out there and people just forgot about it. It was just happenstance that they got rediscovered."

"In the late 1970s, the renowned fish biologist Robert Behnke identified a small fish in the Pilot Peak streams as the Lahontan cutthroat trout. At the time, there were no genetic tools to determine if the fish was the same species. By the 1990s, methods and tools were beginning to develop to determine if the small fish in the Pilot Peak streams were the true offspring of the enormous Lahontan cutthroat trout."

"Since there were no original Lahontan cutthroat trout left in Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake or the Truckee River, Peacock and researchers turned to museums for genetic samples of the historic fish.The research to identify the Lahontan began for Peacock in the 1990s, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services hired her to conduct genetic analysis on the Pilot Peak trout. She started out doing a population viability analysis, which is an assessment of the fish and its habitat to determine what factors would lead to a successful survival. Samples were taken from fish in the Pilot Peak streams and were later used for DNA testing."

As luck would have it, "The Smithsonian, Cal Academy and University of Michigan had specimens from the late 1800s through the early 1900s, but they were preserved in a way that made it very difficult to get the DNA out. Peacock's lab manager, Veronica Kirchoff, perfected a technique to get usable DNA out of the museum samples and determined that the Pilot Peak trout was indeed the original Lahontan cutthroat."

In 1995, right after the Pilot Peak strain had been identified as the original and genetically pure Lahontan cutthroat, USFWS biologists harvested eggs from Pilot Peak and began rearing the fish in a local hatchery. Then, in 2006, they began stocking this strain in the big (Pyramid) lake. Earlier, in 2006, the local Paiute tribe took fish from the Summit Lake strain, raised them and started to repopulate Pyramid Lake with them. It is the Pilot Peak fish that grown to such a large size.

In 2014, for the first time on almost 100 years, the Pilot Peak fish were observed spawning naturally in the lower three miles of the Truckee River. In 2016, after more restoration work and several good water years, the Lahontan cutthroat were allowed to move a further seven miles up the Truckee to just below the Numana Dam. Work is continuing and eventually, the plan is for the Lahontans to be able to migrate all the way up the Truckee to their historic spawning grounds close to Lake Tahoe.

Success stories like the Lahontan Cutthroat are the result of a lot of hard work and dedication from many groups and thousands of individuals from governmental agencies and conservation organizations. I, for one, rarely give our governmant credit for doing much that is positive with respect to our environment. However, in the case of the Lahontan, they have really stepped up. Following is a list of those agencies and groups who worked together to create this happy story. The associated links will provide more information on the actual work these groups did to help the Lahontan cutthroat.

US Government:

National Fish and Wildlife Foundation - Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

US Department of the Interior/Bureau of Land Management (BLM) - Lahontan Cutthroat Natural Area

US Fish & Wildlife Service - Lahontan cutthroat trout Oncorhynchus clarkia henshawi (Richardson,1836)

US Fish & Wildlife Service - The Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex​

Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe

Nevada Department of Wildlife - Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

California Department of Fish & Wildlife - Lahontan Cutthroat trout

NGO Conservation Groups:

California Trout - Lahontan Cutthroat trout

Trout Unlimited - by Chris Hunt  A ‘Wow!’ moment in Lahontan cutthroat trout recovery

Western Native Trout Initiative - Lahontan Cutthroat

More reading...

Return of a giant: DNA from archival museum samples helps to identify a unique cutthroat trout lineage formerly thought to be extinct published by Royal Society Open Science

Demise of the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout By Gordon Richards/Truckee-Donner Historical Society

A Business Plan for the Conservation of the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout: by National Fish and Wildlife Fund

Lahontan Cutthroat Trout: A prehistoric legend returns (video) by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Fish of the People: Lahontan Cutthroat Trout at Summit Lake (video)  by FISHBIO

US Fish & Wildlife Service - listing of the Lahontan Cutthroat as "Threatened".

Here is an excellent "Story Map" that tells the story of Pyramid Lake and the Truckee River over the past 100 years or so. Click here to view...