Intrinsic Value of Rescue|Restoration of the Alvord Phenotype

. . . Why Does it Matter? . . . What Difference Does it Make? . . .

It’s a bit of a long synopsis: the historical events that brought the Alvord Cutthroat Trout into existenceand events that have brought them to the classification of extinction.  Yet, to follow is a concise sketch of basic sequential facts that have brought us to present reality.

Following a pluvial period contiguous to what is known as the last ice age, numerous lakes were extant throughout the Great Basin.  Some of these lakes held tremendous capacity. River systems that we recognize today were still in a state of flux, with the final channels of flow and interconnectednessor the lack thereofstill in the process of being determined.

Eventually, trout species settled in these particular basins left from pluvial dominance, and began to develop unique characteristics specially adapted to their respective environment. Rainbow trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss, came to occupy a large Pacific base domain, whereas Cutthroat trout, Oncorhynchus clarki, became the dominant trout of the American west.

As these environments became more distinctly defined, residents took on select traits and characteristics to allow them to key-in on the extant provisions and survive in the existing environment (whether ever more isolated, alkaline, low oxygen, or temperature-extreme). In the natural course of events, trout with uniquely adapted capabilities were the survivors in their respective basins.  The characteristics vital for life and perpetuation of each species were retained and strengthened in these subpopulations, in their respective environments.

As these basins eventually became completely isolated from one another, even the trout of the exact same species took on distinguishing qualities.  Ecosystems were then established, with distinct flora and fauna—custom-made for their bionetwork.  A few millennia later we so often utterly take for granted this remarkable order of events; and these ecosystems—a testament to the resiliency and diverse adaptability that has been built into all of creation.

The military and early settlers were amazed at the number of “mountain trout” that would be carried down Trout Creek in the spring to the region where the creek was “about to sink into the sands” of the Alvord Basin.  These early trout were the native “alvordensis” of this isolated remote stronghold for this extremely rugged—yet beautiful—desert trout species. These trout were survivors of the evaporation of the Alvord Basin by adhering to the fresh waters sources that emptied into ancient Lake Alvord and still yield life giving water today.

Early fish biologists, Hubbs and Miller, classified this species in 1933, and Robert J. Behnke (Professor Emeritus Colorado State Univ. /Author: Trout and Salmon of North America) used this classification again by the 1990’s to affirm the nomenclature and categorization…

Yet, the Alvord Cutthroat Trout was already in the process of being extirpated by the time it was first being named.  Rainbow trout (hatchery stock) had been introduced into Trout Creek, Oregon and Virgin Creek, Nevada; strongholds of the Alvord Cutthroat Trout.  This story, all too oft repeated in the American west: a beautiful, distinct, specialized trout being genetically swamped by a strain that has not endured generations of the rigors of drought, heat, low oxygen, alkalinity and virtual starvation; indeed by a common, widespread strain.

Now, before one might say “so what,” let’s consider what the loss of even just one species actually means for us.  Perhaps we grasp that when one species is affected, many species are also affected.  Yet here, the progeny of thousands of generations were extirpated by genocide of sorts.  Not a natural extinction; but an extirpation, caused by actions of men.

So what?  Let’s remember that these trout are truly unique.  They are not the same as any other trout.  Their form and beauty is priceless to those who treasure and appreciate the natural order of these innate residents of our American Great Basin desert wilderness. These desert trout bear distinct beauty and adaptation unique and specific to them alone.

Remarkably, though the Alvord Cutthroat Trout came to be extirpated in their home of Trout Creek, Oregon and Virgin Creek, Nevada; history indicates that the same impulse that caused men to put non-native trout into those streams, may also have inspired the relocation of Alvords from their home range—to relocate them into another nearby basin.

Again, Dr. Robert J. Behnke—while on a trout sampling expedition with ODFW in 2006—certified in his About Trout column of Trout Magazine, that they had found trout strongly resembling native alvordensis.  Just a year earlier, in the same column, he wrote about a historical reference to a transplant of trout from Trout Creek; likely to this very stream!

The rosy opercula; the crimson lateral line with brick red hues; the olive back with brassy sides; purplish lower fins; and the light spotting on the back all above the lateral line; with intense spotting on the caudal peduncle and fins; and the fire engine slashare all still here, in these hardly charted waters of this tiny stream, often just easy stepping distance across.

Yet, history again shows that well intentioned actions of men, without full knowledge, have consequences.  This lonely desert stream is no exception.  In the 60’s and 70’s, trout were placed into this tiny stream; assuming that no other trout were residents within its narrow banks.  It’s now known that trout were extant there even long before you and I were born.

A “genetic time clock of hybridization” is now ticking away in this tiny stream; yet the hope persists that it may still be possible to rescue the Alvord phenotype—so that the inimitable characteristics of the Alvord Cutthroat Trout may be saved for future generations to fully enjoy and appreciateperhaps even thrilling native trout enthusiasts at the privilege and delight of having so special of a trout hooked on a barbless fly tied at the end of their line!!

Please review the pictures for yourselves.  Dr. Behnke is right in his assertion.  Alvords are surely reflected in this tiny remote desert stream.  SE Oregon, so far, has yielded only this remnant of the Alvord Cutthroat Trout.  …The last best known hope of Alvord restoration.

This could be the most unique chapter in the preservation of cutthroat trout in the world—that the very actions of men that led to the extirpation of the Alvord Cutthroat Trout may also be the very mechanism that leads to the salvation of this beautiful rare desert species: though extirpated in their home waters—they were also moved away from their home!

Does it matter?  Perhaps that question would best be addressed to our children—whether they would still like to see and appreciate a rare and beautiful species that we now have the opportunity to save for both them, and future generations, to truly enjoy and appreciate.

To that end this Alvord Cutthroat Trout phenotype rescue | restoration précis is dedicated. May sportsmen, native trout enthusiasts and nature lovers everywhere support this cause.

© KOD 1-2011

Please submit letters of support for an Alvord phenotype rescue and restoration project to: Shannon Hurn, ODFW District Office, 237 Highway 20 South/PO Box 8, Hines, OR 97738 –  Here is an example of an excellent Letter of Support

Alvord Cutthroat Trout by Joseph Tomelleri


About kortumofdiscovery

Kortum of Discovery (a slight play on Lewis & Clark's Corps of Discovery) is a family team that is Affirming the Exceptional Beauty of Nature, one Adventure at a Time. With a focus toward rare and endangered species in the Great Basin and American west: discoveries, unique methodologies, and many “tall tales to tell” are continually being shared around the campfire!
This entry was posted in Fisheries Biology and Genetics, Observations. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Intrinsic Value of Rescue|Restoration of the Alvord Phenotype

  1. Greg Roberts says:

    Hello, David, I’m just getting onto the site, so am overwhelmed, but fascinated by the topic, and will get into it when time permits. Just wanted to tell you about an ebay postcard, item 380137846254. It is old, and shows “30-inch trout” from Fish Lake at Burns, Oregon. I guess these would have to be Lahontans. Take care. Greg R. Equator Coffee.

    • Interesting Greg. The trout in the postcard are clearly in the Rainbow family… I’d be inclined to wonder if either Krumbo or Chickahomany were called “fish lake” by some locals once upon a time. I’m not aware of such lunkers in Fish Lake (high-east side of the Steens Mountains) – but have heard of near 30″ trout (Lahontan) taken from Mann Lake (floor of the west side of the Steens Mountains).

  2. Pingback: May We Help the Alvord Cutthroat Trout Live — In Perpetuity | Alvord Cutthroat Trout — Phenotype       Remnant Rescue‎ | ‎Restoration Précis

  3. Jeff Smith says:

    Dear Sir, I currently reside in Colorado, where outstanding efforts have been made to identify pure strains of greenback cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus”clarkii stomias).with strong protections in place to preserve the only known population of pure Greenbacks. An update on the progress of the introduction of the Alvord phenotypes to their native habitat would be appreciated. Jeff Smith, 1985 UGA Graduate, Zoology Major. Retired military pilot , Colorado Springs. interests: molecular biology and environmental education (through habitat and species diversity awarness).

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