A Few Exigent Questions — in Pursuit of Apt Answers

Over the five years since Dr. Behnke first noted the remnant of phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout in ***** Creek of the **** ******** National Wildlife Refuge, there have almost certainly been more questions asked—than there have been answers attained.

One individual — or even several individuals — cannot identify all the questions that arise where the remnant of phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout in ***** Creek are concerned… Yet, as an exercise in the pursuit of meaningful understanding, it seems that there may be genuine value in summarizing a few of the questions that we’re aware of, and seeing which of these might avail meaningful and consequential answers.

Hopefully this brief list will characterize a few meaningful questions, and bring positive and essential considerations into focus that ultimately will be helpful concerning the prospect of the rescue | restoration of this imperiled remnant of phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout…

  • How did the Alvords get from Trout Creek (or Virgin Creek) to ***** Creek?  A:  One of the most common explanations involves the original Camp Warner which stood just above **** Meadows about 1886-‘87.  General Crook came to this fort just after its completion.  Crook was renowned for his fly-fishing prowess…  He was fly-fishing in the region of western Nebraska when Custer met his last stand.  A predecessor—Colonel Drew—commented in 1860’s military journals about the abundance of trout in Trout Creek.  Military roads spanned from Trout Creek to Camp Warner.  It would not have been too unusual for Crook to have ordered some trout to be relocated from Trout Creek to Warner Creek.  It is also plausible that local ranchers in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s might have moved trout into their home streams in order to increase future prospects for sport and for food.  The locals on Trout Creek stated to Hubbs and Miller that there had been an earlier transplant of trout from Trout Creek to this basin.
  • Why was there the assumption that ***** Creek held no trout when ODFW began transplanting trout there in the late 1950’s?  A: There was a time that electro-fishing was not so common—thus walking afoot along a stream—looking, and fishing—was the common way to identify if trout were present in a stream.  We now know from history that trout were extant in ***** Creek circa WWII (these were most likely Alvords left from a historical reference to a transplant of trout from Trout Creek to the “****** Basin” prior to 1934, when Hubbs & Miller first explored the region as an ichthyologic study).  Hubbs and Miller were given wrong information by a local rancher saying that there was ‘no good water’ above in ***** Creek.  This was recorded in their journals of their scientific exploration.
  • With so much genetic diversity in the stream, did it all come from the trout that ODFW planted in ***** Creek?  A: It is possible the trout currently in the system derive their genetics from translocated Alvord cutthroat trout, and subsequent Rainbow trout (McCloud River Strain) and Lahontan cutthroat trout (henshawi and Willow-Whitehorse strain).  Additionally, for a protracted period of time, the Alvord Basin was connected to the Columbia Basin.  It is possible, and may even seem likely, that the genome of the Alvord cutthroat trout represents a genetic legacy derived from more than one ancient source population (see Questions from the Pluvial Past).
  • It is also possible that other strains of trout were introduced at some point in time—or even an original native strain was present in the Creek (see the Rarest of Possibilities).  Perhaps there is possibility here similar to what Chief Moses noted when asked how the trout in inter­mittent Crab Creek came to exist in the seemingly isolated headwaters: “My people know, and I know, that they have always been there.”  (from Cutthroat: Native Trout of the West by Patrick Trotter, 2nd edition, pgs. 259-260).  
  • How can the phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout be preserved—saved—for future generations to experience, enjoy and appreciate?  A:  It would seem that the original encouragement that Dr. Behnke provided to ODFW (to transplant optimally selected phenotypes into a fishless yet suitable stream in order to establish a self-propagating population of modern Alvord cutthroat trout) is the simplest and most direct solution.  Yet the known ‘unpopulated’ streams in this region of SE Oregon have had trout from Willow and Whitehorse Creeks planted into them—thus ODFW does not know of any suitable steams in the region for a translocation…  A second choice (perhaps first choice) might be to translocate the best of the Alvord phenotypes into a suitable hatchery facility, and to propagate a sizable population of phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout for utilization in future translocation and restoration; as well as for any genetic studies and analysis that may be desired when resources allow.  (see Behnke on alvordensis)
  • Are there streams in SE Oregon that (with riparian zone restoration) could or would make a suitable refugium for the relict Alvord cutthroat trout?  A:  Yes, there are streams in the Pueblo Mountains of SE Oregon that have potential to support trout—with a little help from the BLM:  Willow Creek, Little Cottonwood Creek and Stone-house Creek would all (each) have potential to support alvordensis with riparian zone work.  Perhaps reintroduction of beaver into the streams (or sizable manmade water-retention reservoirs) would prevent a lack of critical flow—and would provide oxygen during the hot summers—and prevent excessive flooding and runoff during the high-water spring snow melt.  (Here’s an Oregon Field Guide summary of ODFW and other agencies on Willow/Whitehorse Creek systems to improve habitat and to help revitalize this humboldtensis population.)
Riparian Improvement
  • Is it possible to genetically verify the composition of the trout in ***** Creek and compare them with the Trout Creek or Virgin Creek varieties?  A: Yes, there are museum samples at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology of alvordensis that predate known hybridization events.  Via contemporary genetic analysis capabilities, it should be possible to take genetic material from museum specimens and identify the genetic markers that are different than the currently known species of trout.  It should then also be possible to compare the Alvord phenotypes from ***** Creek to look for these same markers (as well as compare their genetics with known forms of cutthroat trout as well as rainbow, etc.)  It would be good if the differentiated genetics of the east-slope Steens’ trout (where Willow/Whitehorse trout were planted) were likewise compared with alleles from the original Hubbs’ Alvords from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.  (see Beyond Trout Creek and Virgin Creek)
  • Is there significant cost and time involved in a study of alvordensis?  What provable hypotheses should objectively be put forth?  A:  Yes, there is notable cost and time involved in order to achieve the genetic analysis of known historical alvordensis specimens, and then comparing these original specimens with the current ***** Creek population, the east-side Steens’ populations, and the hybridized Trout Creek population.  It may be best to utilize a revived population of phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout, because the current total popu­lation of optimal Alvord phenotypes in the ***** Creek system seems to be too few to simply pull the trout and utilize them for study.  (Placing the best of the best phenotypes into a natural hatchery facility and reproducing a sizable population of phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout may then allow for sufficient numbers of phenotypes to utilize for advanced genetic study.)  Perhaps a provable hypothesis might be along the lines of ‘specific alleles account for the spotting pattern and coloration of the Alvord cutthroat trout’  and then identifying which alleles these are.  Of course, any allelic variant different than known trout species would lend credence to the actuality that the ***** Creek trout incorporate the remnant of a relict Alvord cutthroat trout population (or an inherent yet unknown trout population).
  • Is there a ‘genetic time clock’ of sorts ticking-away at this possibility?  A: Yes, approximately fifty [50] years ago other trout were first introduced into ***** Creek, and eventually began to hybridize with the remnant of Alvord cutthroat trout that had been translocated from Trout Creek.  Consensus among native trout enthusiasts that have been on the creek during the last five years (since Dr. Behnke noted phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout in the stream), is that the ratio of optimal phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout seems to be on the decline.  Yet, there is still hope that some of the phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout have behavioral characteristics that will enable them to ‘hang out among themselves,’ and perhaps also exercise selective spawning (see Late July—Some Still Spawning).
  • Should the BLM be interested in revitalization of streams in SE Oregon? A: Of course!  It is hard to imagine a wiser investment in resources for SE Oregon than helping establish sustainable water systems for this semi-arid desert region of SE Oregon.  Water is essential for life.  All forms of wild­life, birds and yes—even trout (and anglers)—would benefit from successful riparian zone and water-flow improvements for the streams of this dry rugged corner of Oregon.  And, if the Alvord cutthroat trout were successfully restored to Alvord sub-Basin streams; providing population numbers make it possible—these would draw native trout enthusiasts from all corners of the country (and even from beyond the country) to add the Alvord cutthroat trout to their life-list of native trout species.  An economic impact study would most likely reveal that such an investment would ultimately more than pay for itself with eco-tourism, and even via permit fees for the privilege of catching an ‘extinct’ cutthroat trout!  If Oregon does successfully restore the Alvord phenotype (if not genotype) into healthy self-sustaining stream systems: what an awesome victory it would be for the state and for Alvords, fishermen, conservationists and nature lovers everywhere!  One can’t imagine a more positive victory for Oregon than to announce that an ‘extinct’ species was restored and is being successfully preserved through genuine cooperative effort!
  • How can funding be achieved for this type of operation?  A: Often, special funding is attained from special organizations like the Western Native Trout Initiative—which was created with projects like the restoration of threatened, endangered or ‘extinct’ trout in mind.  Entities such as Fish and Wildlife Departments, BLM, US Forest Service, Tribal Entities, Trout Unlimited and other concerned parties are partners with WNTI.   It may also come to pass that private contributions are included once a project with objectives and outcomes is in place (http://www.westernnativetrout.org).
  • Who are the players—who has vested interest—who has ability to act?  A: Currently Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is essentially aware of the situation on ***** Creek; though the desire to attain some sort of genetic confirmation of what the trout bearing the phenotype of the Alvord cutthroat trout exactly ‘are’ has contributed toward ongoing delays in the determination of what sort of action ODFW may, or may not, undertake.   (Entities that might be candidates for involvement include the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Wildlife Refuge System, the BLM, Trout Unlimited and Tribal Entities — among others.)

Knowledgeable researchers are of the opinion that the trout in the ***** Creek system incorporate the remaining genetics of a relict Alvord cutthroat trout population, and that preserving the trout bearing the phenotype (outward physical characteristics) of the Alvord cutthroat trout would be logical and beneficial for the purpose of preserving the remnant and their unique physical characteristics so that future generations can see, experience and appreciate the Alvord cutthroat trout.  And—with a revived stock of phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout at hand, genetic research may be easily accomplished.  There is concern among some who have observed the trout for a few years that the number (ratio) of optimal phenotypes is on the decline—and that prolonged delay could cause the loss of the op­por­tunity to secure, protect and preserve the Alvord phenotypes. (Overview of a successful Rio Grande cutthroat trout restoration project in New Mexico.)

  • What can I do to get involved or to be of assistance?  A:  As with projects that involve Trout Unlimited or agencies such as ODFW a team of volun­teers are at times invaluable in helping the entity/agency accomplish the ‘grunt work’ or essential goals that require manpower to get done.  Long-run, it may be that even riparian zone labor and other basic grunt-work may be beneficial—even invaluable—for the establishing of a future refugium for a population of relict Alvord cutthroat trout.  That said, it is under the guidance and direction of a ‘formal project’ with knowledgeable authority providing the framework for project goals and objectives that such work may legally and successfully be accomplished on public or agency lands.  For those with ‘deep pockets,’ revenue is a resource that can help make many positive things come to pass.  For those of us with little more than ‘two nickels to rub together,’ it may be that moral support and initiative are instrumental contributions to help ODFW and other entities engage.

Letters of support for an Alvord phenotype rescue | restoration project may be sent to: Shannon Hurn, ODFW District Office, 237 Highway 20 South/PO Box 8, Hines, OR 97738   Here’s a Letter of Support example.

No doubt, there are many more questions that can be generated regarding the Alvord cutthroat trout and the relict phenotypical Alvord population in ***** Creek.

Perhaps the most exigent question is—who will intervene in behalf of this remnant population of phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout—and when will we intervene?

© KOD 11-2011


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!
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