Haunting Living Realities from the Alvord Basin

Sometimes it seems very difficult—if not impossible—to find the perfect words to describe what one is thinking or feeling about a subject intensely near and dear to one’s heart.  Such may be the case after our most recent foray to ***** Creek; and especially regarding the sober impressions burned into our comprehension after just 12 or so hours on the stream…

It wasn’t the mosquitoes; though they were the worst that we’ve ever encountered on the creek; and they left a whining drone in our ears and the imprint of a swarm in our memory even long after the day was done and we were countless miles away.  …At least the no-see-ums were not nearly as bad as three years ago in July of ’08 when after just a few hours on the stream my eyes were black and blue as if I’d gotten the worst of it in a bar room brawl.

It wasn’t the high water; though the water was the highest we’ve seen in July—and clearly this has been an exceptionally wet year.  Though weeks late the gates were still not open to allow passage on many of the roads.  In May of ’08, the HQ recommended no passage at all to ***** Creek (though a few diehards did 4WD into the area).  Yet the gates were open in June—and the roads then didn’t show the serious scars that they revealed on this last trip.

But all of that is just academic.  In reality, it is time on the stream that is relevant; and it is the time on the stream that leaves the stark impressions that affect our passions.  This trip it was really due to circumstances that we earnestly worked a section of the system that in previous years we’d overlooked or skirted around.  What we encountered was an amazing surprise that should have heartened us; and yet, at best, finally left us feeling bittersweet.

The surprise was that we either found the nursery of the whole system, or conditions came together over the past year in a manner to assure record survival of the smolt into juvenile fish.  Either way, we caught dozens of the little buggers, and this is the first time that we’ve seen or experienced such ravenous tiny baby trout signaling hope for all posterity to come.

   

  

But even fingerlings can be recognized for what they are.  One by one we began to realize that little trout after little trout we were catching predominantly juvenile humboldtensis as evidence from the salmon/pink pigmentation to the many tiny little spots below the lateral line began to reveal.  And here, the adult trout were predominately humboldtensis as well:

It has been stated by some that color cannot be used as an identifier of a species. And it has been asserted by some (of at least equal knowledge) that color is a factor in recognition of a given trout species (and in the systematic identification of a given species).  Personally I fall into the latter camp. It may be that spotting patterns are quite diagnostic of a given species of trout, but it is also very hard to imagine certain species of trout without their given color.

No doubt, environment and diet can change the overall color and brilliance (or lack thereof) for a given trout species.  Yet, it seems equally evident that genetic composition will impose limits on the range of coloration that a given species will express.  After being present in ***** Creek for over half a century, the salmon/pink streak on spotted sides would still clearly seem to indicate humboldtensis of Willow Creek and/or Whitehorse Creek origin…

While many of the trout almost fit into the “cookie-cutter” definition for their given species, it is also true that some defy definition, and some due to hybridization exhibit mixed traits.  Some of the trout are more lackluster in their coloration; some exhibit a silver cast, some a green cast, and some a brown cast.  It would be interesting to understand the cause of this.

Eventually we caught a few trout that would seem best identified as henshawi Lahontan cutthroats with relatively uniform background body pigmentation and orange slash marks.  Perhaps hybridization accounts for the few vs. the many spots on these two diverse trout.

Finally late in the day we caught a few that revealed the tell-tale color and spotting pattern that may speak of alvordensis.  And finally a little juvenile was caught with bright red sides —and much larger spots than its cousins — and in the appropriate pattern and flow to truly speak hope to those who desire to see these rare jewels of the desert brought back to life.  (Of these little trout, most were turned loose before a photo was taken; and of the larger trout, a few successfully escaped before they could be brought to hand and photographed!)

Yet the sober realization is that the former overwhelmingly outnumbered the latter (and if this is anything indicative of things to come — it would seem to imply a dire future for the remnant phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout that native trout enthusiasts so desire to see restored to their rightful place in history of the Great Basin ecosystem they called home).

In the ***** Creek system, it really hasn’t been easy to find pure or faultlessly respectable remnants of the Alvord cutthroat trout since Dr. Behnke first asserted their presence.  Yet it has been possible, especially with effort and focus, to find trout that defy any explanation other than Alvord genes wholly predominating in their outward phenotypical expression.

Memories of some of those trout are eternally etched into our consciousness.  The flawless of these trout seem to cry out as if they are ghosts of the past yearning for restoration and reconciliation with their homeland and their rightful place in history — as one of the most resilient, yet fragile, and yet dynamic trout to ever grace the North American Great Basin.

It would seem to us that carefully taking the absolute best of the best of these phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout to a natural hatchery environment, and from them breeding a vital replenishment population — and then restoring these selectively bred trout into a safe and healthy (native) environment to repopulate that optimal and fully prepared environment, would effectively accomplish a virtual miracle; in essence the resurrection and restoration of this “extinct” strain of Alvord cutthroat trout!

There may be other approaches to achieve a similar outcome.  What would it be that would encourage the agencies and individuals with the power to do something — to indeed do so?  What would motivate the powers that be to actually be proactive and to seek to work the ‘miracle’ that would put the Alvord cutthroat trout back into the status of “existing” again?

The haunting bittersweet feeling that the countless fingerlings imparted was only partially offset by the handful of adult phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout that we caught, and saw. Saw because there was a significant red trout that broke the tippet of one of our rigs, and because there was a significant red trout that felt like a snag until it gracefully moved its 16-18 inch frame gently downstream — as if it were only mildly disturbed by our presence.

These were not dreams.  These were stark and vivid living realities.  Yet they will haunt our dreams and thoughts perpetually.  Like these ghosts of the past — we yearn with them for their restoration and reconciliation to their homeland and their rightful place in history.

© KOD July 2011

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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 ***** Creek Sampling, Fisheries Biology and Genetics, Observations, Photo Journals. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Haunting Living Realities from the Alvord Basin

  1. Joe D says:

    Can a fish barrier be built on the stream which could allow mechanically separating Alvord looking trout from non-Alvord looking trout?????????????????????????

    • Joe D says:

      Hindsight tells me that if a fish barrier was used on Virgin Creek, NV, the Alvord looking trout could have been separated from the non-Alvord looking trout with both types still existing in Virgin creek.

  2. Joe; I would say that your thought process about building a fish barrier is a pretty good one – if the idea were to hold the Alvords in the headwaters of the system and keep other trout from making it up (it’s generally easier to keep trout below from making it up, than visa-versa). High water floods make it almost inevitable that some trout above the barrier would find their way below the barrier…

    That said, for the headwaters to be optimal alvordensis habitat — perhaps spawning bed (smooth gravel, etc.) improvement might be helpful in certain stretches.

    As to Virgin Creek — there was a natural barrier that protected the upper Alvords from Rainbows for quite some time, however; a rancher introduced Rainbows into Alkali Lake (headwaters region of Virgin Creek). As a result of high-water runoff, Rainbows from the lake began to infiltrate Virgin Creek from above.

    It was above the barrier, in the canyon notably downstream from the lake, that for a brief period in the 80’s a few Alvords were located in Virgin Creek. NDOW still hopes that alvordensis are extant somewhere within some recess of that canyon — or some isolated Virgin Creek pocket or spring.

    Thank you for your input Joe. It is thinking “out of the box” that may be key to finding solutions that may help spark optimism or encouragement for ODFW or the USFWS etc. to accomplish what’s never quite been done before. Keep at the positive thought processes, and thanks again for your input!

  3. Joe D says:

    Has Trout Unlimited in the states associated with possible Alvord types, been made aware of the current status?????????????????????????? If anything is of interest to TU, trying to rescue a trout type from total extinction should be of utmost concern for TU.

  4. TU has had some involvement with this remnant of phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout. Last July, during a brief sampling of the population, five trout were fin-clipped and the samples sent via TU to UNR (probably the posts from last October touch on some of the communication at that time). You’re right. It is long overdue to refresh communication with TU and their associated chapters.

  5. Joe D says:

    The more TU chapters notified of the fate of the Alvord CT the better chance for saving the phenotype. Some chapters are into conservation of indigenous trout more than other chapters.

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