Beyond Trout Creek and Virgin Creek

Sometimes it’s difficult to own up to having made a mistake.  Perhaps even more so for a group of individuals—a company, organization or agency—to admit when a shared mistake has been made.   Vast expenditures and professional reputations are often at stake.

Some actions are even “prefaced” to “prove” that they’re not mistakes.  The early United States Fish Commission sponsored articles, written by “experts” on table fare, stating that rainbow trout were “fairer” and “better tasting” than salmon or other trout — including cutthroat trout (thus, justifying the idea that planting rainbows just about anywhere and everywhere was a good thing).

Of course, today most of us would recognize such opinionating as the nonsense that it is. We realize that we cannot improve the natural order of innate ecosystems by artificial means.  That is not to say that there can’t be artificial “ecosystems” that benefit mankind; but that we cannot effectively replace or improve on the natural order by subverting it.

Most who are familiar with the history of the Alvord Cutthroat Trout know that they were extirpated by the release of rainbow trout into Trout Creek, Oregon and Virgin Creek, Nevada (strongholds of the ancient alvordensis). Yet there is much more to those stories, and there is much more than those stories.

One example is in tragic mistakes that were made in the attempt to rescue a remnant of alvordensis found in the mid-1980s.  These details generally do not make it to the history books and the public record.  From “miscommunication” with the helicopter pilot who was to transport the trout, to the “extinct” trout being kept in oxygen depleted weirs (resulting in casualty), the saga reads like a horror story leading to the destruction of the last known remnant of a rare and noble population.

Yet as shocking as the loss of a population, in the midst of trying to save it, may be; mankind’s attempts to intervene in the natural order appear to be habitually flawed, providing mixed outcomes at best.  It is my conviction, where the Alvord Cutthroat Trout is concerned, that similar consequences may well have been accomplished in more situations than history is readily willing to admit.

Ancient Lake Alvord once exerted well over a fifty mile span across the Alvord Basin, and the resource carried over to now dry Continental Lake, Nevada (where Virgin Creek and Thousand Creek found their terminus in centuries gone by).  This would indicate that streams in this entire region that still yield life-giving water, could — or would — likely provide refuge for the relict alvordensis that also found refuge in Trout Creek, Oregon and Virgin Creek, Nevada.

In the early 70’s, Dr. Behnke requested anglers to scour the streams in this region for any remnant of alvordensis that might be found…  Perhaps this area was simply too remote and too untraveled for the word to really get out and really have an impact.  Hikers in the Pueblo Mountains often reported seeing “red trout” in the streams—yet an ODFW biologist determined that Van Horn and Denio Creek were the only Pueblo streams that could sustain trout, but were “fishless.”  In an effort to “save” the Willow Creek and Whitehorse Creek Cutthroat Trout (considered threatened), these strains of trout were transplanted to Denio Creek and Van Horn Creek of the Pueblo Mountains (probable alvordensis habitat).

The Oregon Native Fish Status Report – Volume II under Coyote Lake Lahontan Cutthroat states: “Nine naturalized populations exist in Pike, Little Alvord, Big Alvord, Cottonwood, Willow, Mosquito, and Little McCoy creeks in the Alvord Lake Basin, and Denio and Van Horn Creeks in the Pueblo Valley Basin. These populations were established through translocations from Willow and Whitehorse creeks between 1970 and 1981 for conservation purposes. A naturalized population in ***** Creek in the ****** Valley Basin was established in 1957 with Lahontan cutthroat trout collected from Willow Creek in 1955 and reared at Wallowa Hatchery. Lahontan cutthroat trout stocks from California were also stocked in ***** Creek . . . .” (Alvord Lake Basin streams: also native alvordensis habitat.)

Most of us are familiar with the situation in ***** Creek.  Records show introduction of nonnative trout as early as the latter 50’s; yet history testifies of trout being caught there right after WWII (circa 1946).  The same logic was applied here, as had been for Van Horn and Denio Creeks; that it was a “fishless” stream.  Yet, as we now know, it was not fishless.

Were Denio and Van Horn fishless?  After introduction of Willow and Whitehorse trout into Denio and Van Horn Creeks, Joseph Tomelleri and Phil Howell decided to electroshock Van Horn Creek to see what the trout looked like (after all, they were already in the area with a shocker and the opportunity availed itself).  They got Browns and one quite large potential hybrid that looked like a redband/cutt mix!  Obviously, Van Horn was also not fishless . . .

At some similar time frame, M.R. Montgomery had set his hopes on finding a remnant of alvordensis in one of the east-side Steens Mountain streams: Pike Creek.  A description can be found in the last chapter of his book, Many Rivers to Cross.  Montgomery had previously caught most types of cutthroat trout—and he did catch cutts in Pike Creek, and he knew the cutts that he caught there were not typical henshawi or humboldtensis.

One trout had about ten spots below the lateral line and 40 above.  Both trout exhibited stacking of the spotting pattern on the caudal peduncle.  When Dr. Behnke did the meristic analysis of the fish—he found that the scale count, pyloric caeca, gill rakers, etc. indicated that these trout were of Willow/Whitehorse extraction.   Montgomery investigated, and found that there had been an earlier introduction of Willow/Whitehorse trout into two of these Steens’ headwaters by helicopter.  The explanation provided was that these streams “could support trout,” but were “fishless.”  (Same explanation as for Van Horn and *****.)

Montgomery’s description and his take was that these trout did not seem to perfectly fit into a “Humboldt” depiction, and he theorized that the more “removed” a trout was from its parent (Lahontan) stock, the more this type of sparse spotting (except toward the tail) was likely to occur.  Yet, this all begs the question that seems (to some) the most logical to ask: If these streams “could support trout;” Why then would they be “fishless?” Especially valid habitable streams of the Alvord Basin?

A recent report, published February 2010, can be found in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 139:382–395, 2010 entitled The Evolutionarily Significant Unit Concept and the Role of Translocated Populations in Preserving the Genetic Legacy of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout.  This report finds distinct genetic differentiation between the trout now in the east Steens streams vs introduced Willow/Whitehorse Creek trout; yet its conclusion validates the stocking of Willow and Whitehorse Creek trout into these Steens streams, for future use in “restoring” Willow/Whitehorse Creek trout!

From a layman’s perspective, I’ll try to provide a synopsis:  Four decades after Whitehorse and Willow Creek trout were first introduced to the Steens’, 135 out of 300 tracked genetic markers are differentiated from the source population.  This equates to 45% differentiation in a short time span!!  And, so far, none of the “new” alleles have been found in the ‘source’ (W/W) populations.   (Pike Creek holds one of these quite differentiated trout populations).

Notable effort has gone into explaining how the unusual genetic results could have been attained.  One aspect involves utilizing a theorem, used to explain the phylogeny of a known human population that “allows for mutations of a larger magnitude to occur.” Yet, genetic drift cannot account for such a change even with rapid mutations fully allowed.

The other “explanation” is in attributing a “random chance” theory that they somehow managed to catch and translocate the last of the Willow/Whitehorse Creek trout that had these alleles — before these genes “dropped out” of the source population; and they had managed to “save them” in the introduced population!  WOW.  What luck!  Now the goal is to “remix” the trout up, and get these genes “back into” the source population.


The study did go to the lengths to confirm that the trout genetics in the east Steens’ populations are most closely related to the Willow/Whitehorse trout populations (compared with Carson, Humboldt and Quinn).  Indeed, one would expect that Alvord Basin Cutthroat Trout would be closely related to Coyote Basin Cutthroat Trout.  (The basins are virtually connected even today; though surely much more so in the pluvial past.)

Yet it would appear that the study did not do the tests that would have confirmed whether there had been any hybridization. (Genetic tests do exist that help confirm distance for introduction of alleles, and help gauge the timing of hybridization or introgression events.)

I would assert that a “remix” from the east Steens’ population could be catastrophic— potentially “contaminating” the source populations!  No trout from the east side of the Steens should be remixed with the native Willow and Whitehorse populations until authoritative confirmation exists, proving that there is no hybridization!  If the Steens’ streams were indeed fishless, it may be that the explanations provided are the only ones. But, if they were not truly fishless, it may be that Alvord alleles are now presently being classified as Willow/Whitehorse alleles!

There might be some question as to whether lineage-sorting is complete between the Coyote Basin and the Alvord Basin populations.  It is logical to conclude that the two populations are related, and may have been one population in the past.  It also seems logical to conclude that lineage sorting is complete; since the meristic ranges are as distinct for each of these sub-species as they are for the other recognized strains of cutthroat trout.

Maybe we’re now looking at “the rest of the story;” not just two populations of alvordensis extirpated, but perhaps three, four, five, six or even seven.  There is still a broad hope that ***** Creek may still have a chance at “resurrecting” the Alvord phenotype so that future generations may experience its rare beauty.  For the Steens’ population; are they hybrids? These streams are closed to further exploration by trout fishermen.  In Montgomery’s day it seems that there was at least a possibility that alvordensis still had a fleeting chance . . .

Perhaps there’s a master’s thesis or a doctoral project here for those of you doing research.

One of the best lessons we can learn from history is to exercise even greater caution before moving any trout out of their native range.  Simply attempting to “save” a rare strain of trout can potentially yield catastrophic consequences for an even more rare strain of trout.

For native trout enthusiasts, the lesson seems to be to keep our senses ready for every possibility.  *****’s “soup” may render it quite difficult to successfully restore alvordensis. Yet, there may still be other persistent remnants of alvordensis, out there . . . somewhere.

Let’s not give up on any of the prospects or possibilities.

And, let’s hope that we truly learn the lessons of history.

© KOD 4-2011

Willow-Whitehorse Creek Cutthroat Trout Dispersal through the Alvord Lake Basin and Subbasins

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.

One Response to Beyond Trout Creek and Virgin Creek

  1. Pingback: A few Exigent Questions—in Pursuit of Apt Answers | Alvord Cutthroat Trout — Phenotype       Remnant Rescue‎ | ‎Restoration Précis

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