To Those Who’ve Made what we Take for Granted – Into Reality

Often, at this time of year, nations, corporations, organizations and individuals take a look at the “year in review,” and evaluate the progress (or lack thereof) for their respective goals, objectives and purposes.

For the Alvord cutthroat trout, it honestly makes more sense to simply put things into perspective as to present reality regarding this remnant population of o. c. alvordensis: with relevant historical overviews of a few trout populations that essentially parallel the plight of the Alvords; the main difference being that the outcome for those subspecies of cutthroat has been positively determined—while the outcome for this relict population of phenotypical Alvord cutthroat trout is yet to be determined.

Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

The story behind the ***** Creek remnant of Alvord cutthroat trout is perhaps notably analogous to the story behind Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroat trout found in Utah.  A student of Dr. Robert J. Behnke (of Colorado State University), Terry Hickman, set out to find a nameless creek — a creek reported by a local biologist to have cutthroat trout in it.  Hickman was searching for a remnant of Bonneville cutthroat trout in this tiny stream that began in Nevada, yet flowed into Utah.  Since it had no name, yet had once flowed into Donner Springs (the first fresh water that the Donner party found in 1846 after they’d crossed theBonneville Salt Flats) Hickman called the creek ‘Donner Creek.’  Only a mile of undiverted creek remained in Utah, along with a mile of pure water in Nevada.

While they were stocking the region beginning in the late 1940’s and onward, fisheries biologists realized that this creek already had trout in it—so, they wisely did not stock it—which, as it positively turns out, left this pure remnant of Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroat trout to be ‘rediscovered’ decades later!

Meristic and physical identifiers revealed that the resident trout in this tiny creek were Lahontan cutthroat troutbut where did they come from?  Digging into history, Dr. Behnke and Hickman found that shipments of over a million Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutthroat eggs had been sent to the counties of eastern Nevada, near the Utah line, in 1910.  It appeared that ‘Donner Creek’ had been stocked with fry hatched from among these shipments!  No other explanation seemed plausible; but that these were offspring of what was then a considered extinct Pyramid Lake strain!  And so—the Pyramid Lake strain still lives! (1) (2)

Since the finding of the Pilot Peak population of Pyramid Lake Lahontan cut­throat trout, other remnants of this strain have been located in remote streams in Utah and Nevada.  Genetic testing has also verified that these isolated populations of relocated trout are henshawi, and the convincing evidence of history indicates that these are indeed relict Pyramid Lake Lahontan cutts.

Broodstock of the Pyramid Lake strain of Lahontan cutthroat trout are now used to insure the genetic strength/diversity for the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex and the reintroduction of Lahontans in their native range.

 Bonneville Cutthroat Trout

“Long before European settlement . . . fish helped feed the early white explorers, Mormon settlers and native populations, including the Goshute, who referred to the Bonneville as Ainkai Painkwi — “red fish.”  In the mid 19th century, lakes, small mountain streams and rivers—including the Weber, Bear, Logan, Jordan, Sevier, Beaver and Provo—teemed with the muted, crimson-shaded cutthroat.

“And the fish were big back then. In Patrick Trotter’s seminal book Cutthroat: Native Trout of the West, he notes that historically the trout were large, “averaging 3 pounds in weight but with larger ones reaching several times that.  [They] were so plentiful that the Indians could obtain an ample supply by simply walking the shore and spearing them.”

“But that ample supply quickly dwindled. Overfishing by settlers—including commercial netting—water diversions and the introduction of nonnative trout caused populations of the fish to plunge like a boulder dropped into still pool of water.  By the second half of the 20th century, pure populations of the Bonneville were thought to have disappeared forever, gone the way of the silver trout, the Yellowfin cutthroat and the Passenger pigeon.

“Luckily, after a two-year search, Don Duff, a Bureau of Land Management biologist and TU member, found a remnant population of genetically pure Bonneville high in the Deep Creek Mountains in western Utah in 1974.  That discovery put in motion a frenetic effort to save the fish and to help it reclaim its rightful place within the Great Basin.

“TU volunteers, led by Duff, took the leadership role to get a Bonneville recovery program in place.  First the tribes came on board.  They were quickly followed by state and federal agencies and later yet, landowners and water right holders.  TU volunteers have spent the last 30 years nursing the partnerships along. . . . Today the fish occupies approximately 2,500 miles of stream in Utah, and elsewhere within its native range. . . . To hold a Bonneville is to hold onto the hope, the belief, that other species of imperiled native fish can also survive and flourish if just given the chance.” (3)

Currently Bonneville cutthroat trout are also being reintroduced into certain streams and areas of the Great Basin National Park, Nevada. (4)


Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout

“The primary threat to Rio Grande cutthroat trout today is the presence of non-native trout, which have been introduced in vast numbers into New Mexico and Colorado over the past century and now occupy most suitable habitat within the subspecies’ native range….

…The headwater streams to which the subspecies is generally restricted are often characterized by extreme and fluctuating physical environments, and habitats are not easily re-colonized following local population extinctions.  Rio Grande cutthroat trout are also highly susceptible to whirling disease, which has been introduced into several drainages occupied by the subspecies and is present in at least one population.  The small size and isolation of such extant populations means that they are at increased vulnerability to extinction as a result of demographic stochasticity and reductions in fitness due to (inbreeding) population genetic processes.” (5) (Commonly called “inbreeding depression”)

“Characterized by deep crimson slashes on its throat — hence the name “cutthroat” — the Rio Grande cutthroat is New Mexico’s state fish.  It formerly occurred throughout high-elevation streams in the Rio Grande Basin of New Mexico and southern Colorado.  Logging, road building, grazing, pollution and exotic species have pushed it to the brink of extinction.

…The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to list it as an endangered species in 1998.  It was placed on the candidate list in 2008.  Under the agreement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will propose it for protection (or determine it does not qualify) in 2014 and finalize the decision in 2015 if warranted.” (6)

Rio Grande cutthroat trout have been replaced by nonnative trout throughout 90–95 percent of their historic range, but pure populations persist in 75 small headwater streams of the Rio Grande Basin, and a few headwater streams of the Pecos and Canadian River drainages.  In 1916, pioneer conserva­tionist Aldo Leopold criticized Federal and state agencies that seemed determined to eradicate the Rio Grande cutthroat through nonnative species stocking policy.  Public programs and policy has changed for the better in the last few decades, and the long historical decline of the Rio Grande cutthroat has been reversed. Yet sadly, there is often a very regrettable lag time before enlightenment takes hold…. (7)

Paiute Cutthroat Trout

Basque sheepherders began grazing sheep along upper Silver King Creek in the 1800s, and by 1912 they’d noticed the unusual trout, and had transplanted them above Llewellyn Falls which had originally been their upper limit.  This kept the trout above the falls free from early hybridization with Lahontan and introduced rainbow trout which had been underway below the falls by 1924.

Paiute cutthroat trout were listed as endangered in 1967.  In 1975 they were upgraded to threatened status. (8)

Paiute cutthroats from upstream have been transplanted into many available tributaries of Silver King Creek above the gorge, into Stairway and Sharktooth Creeks to the south in the Sierra Nevada, and to Cottonwood and Cabin Creeks of the White Mountains, as well as into a few small headwater streams.

There are still many challenges to restoration of the Paiute cutthroat trout in its pure form throughout its native domain.  Yet we can be thankful for Basque sheepherders that have enabled the survival of pure Paiute cutthroat trout.

In the ‘50’s and ‘60’s the State of California inadvertently stocked headwaters of Corral Valley and Coyote Valley Creeks of the Silver King drainage with fry.  Predictably, rainbow hybridization was soon underway.  Years later, a plane stocking Lahontan cutthroat trout in lakes inadvertently stocked a tributary lake of Silver King Creek.  By 1964 the three creeks were thoroughly hybridized. 

Though the Paiute cutthroat trout was again at the vanishing point—again, the previous transplants of Paiute trout saved them from extinction a second time!  In 1947 Paiute cutthroat trout from Silver King Creek had been placed above a falls in Fly Creek. These and Paiute cutthroats from a 1964 Corral Valley Creek transfer are now the core for the Silver King Creek Paiute cutthroat restoration.

Though this ‘project’ seems to drag on-and-on, we can only hope that both the fisheries agencies and the public have the will to prevail against the seemingly insurmountable challenge being faced in saving pure Paiute cutthroat trout. (9)


Greenback Cutthroat Trout

A 1937 publication on Colorado trout stated that the Greenback cutthroat trout was extinct.  Thought to be extinct, it was only via museum specimens from the South Platte and Arkansas drainages that a means to better identify the Greenback cutthroat trout for comparison with extant populations was enabled; and thus the “rediscovery” of the Greenback cutthroat made possible.

In the 1960’s only a few pure populations of Greenback’s existed. Two of these populations were quickly extirpated by being subjected to planted Brook trout.  However, fortunately, the remaining populations of pure Greenback that were rediscovered were also isolated by barriers from contact with nonnative trout.

When the first population of Greenback cutthroat trout was again ‘discovered’ in 1969, populations of Greenback’s with no hybrid influence from Rainbows, or other species, were isolated in only a few miles of a few very small streams.  There is even a specialized form of Greenback cutthroat in the upper Little South Poudre River of the South Platte basin—at elevations exceeding 10,500 feet—whose eggs develop and mature at lower temperatures and more quickly than other Greenback or other cutthroat trout. (10)

It is fascinating to contemplate how Greenbacks migrated from the Colorado River basin to the upper Arkansas and South Platte Rivers.  Cross-Continental-Divide-fish-passage (11)  is certainly the plausible explanation for the distribution of the Greenback cutthroat trout.  It also makes the case for inter-basin-and-range-fish-passage seem very easy by comparison — perhaps even inevitable.

Early taxonomic assessments used samples erroneously identified as Greenbacks (though found in Greenback range they were transplants).  Yet, this may suggest that there is less overlap of morphological/genetic makeup between subspecies than previously thought. (12)

The whole history of cutthroat trout is marked on every page by astounding accounts of trout being uniquely located (or relocated) by nature or mankind.  And the whole history of this native trout of the West is a record of struggle; a fight for survival by the trout them-selves and of patient yet persistent actions of a few men and women who truly care enough to break out of their comfort zone, and to DO what is required to save and preserve these most precious of natural resources—living legacies—so that humankind may continue to see, experience and appreciate all that has been entrusted into our human hands.

Alvord Cutthroat Trout

In 2008—on a tiny stream in SE Oregon—the State of Oregon undertook a small sampling project of random trout taken up (using an electro-shocker).  Also, in 2010, they initiated a small sampling—focused on phenotypical characteristics (using electro-shockers as well as fishermen and women with barbless rigs); taking select fin-clips from trout in ***** Creek of the **** Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.  This as follow-up on input from Dr. Behnke regarding a small SE Oregon stream that holds a relict remnant population of Alvord trout.

In addition to input from Dr. Robert J. Behnke, also Patrick C. Trotter Ph.D. (author of CUTTHROAT Native Trout of the West) and Joseph R. Tomelleri (renowned scientific illustrator of fishes, especially detail of salmonid species of America) have each chimed in that certain of these trout would most certainly be classified as alvordensis based on their physical appearance and characteristics.

Among biologists, researchers and scientific illustrators these are the most knowledgeable of scientists where alvordensis is concerned.  Each of the three has direct familiarity with museum specimens, Hubbs’ notes on the original alvordensis, and detailed knowledge of Alvord meristic details.  One would also say they each have full comprehension to recognize cladistic factors that differentiate and define one species, or subspecies, from another.

In many ways, the prior stories that have been related could be, and may be, essentially the same story as the broad history of the Alvord cutthroat trout: Pure native populations extirpated by the introduction of nonnative trout and environmental factors.  Yet trout moved to where they are ‘not supposed to be’ is what prevents actual extinction.  Museum specimens and meristic/cladistic factors enable the identification of the species; and also ultimately preservation of the species.

Yet for the Alvord cutthroat trout, that very last part is yet to be determined.   Recently (spring of 2012)  genetic analysis of tissue from the 2008 samples  has progressed via the Peacock Lab of UNR and NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center; via SNP diagnostics.

These and other tales relate the consistent challenge and struggle that native trout in the West have faced—and how it is only by the effort of resilient and dedicated individuals that even the trout that we essentially take for granted today exist at all.

What would have happened if Terry Hickman had not been looking for a rem­nant of Bonneville cutthroat trout when he found the unknown population of Pyramid Lake Lahontans—long thought to be extinct?

What would be the perceived ‘reality’ today if Don Duff had not found a remnant population of genetically pure “extinct” Bonneville cutthroat trout high in the Deep Creek Mountains in western Utah in 1974?

What would be the status of the Rio Grande cutthroat trout if agency officials were not going ‘pedal to the metal’ to repopulate and to restore Rio Grande cutts throughout their entire native domain?

What will be the outcome for the very rare Paiute cutthroat trout?  What if no one had noticed that this unique trout had been placed above Llewellyn Falls, and needed protection in order to prevent the extirpation and extinction of this subspecies?

What if no one had carefully searched for museum specimens of Greenback cutthroat trout and then assiduously searched for a remnant of this rare and uniquely located cutthroat trout—long thought to be extinct?

What will happen if we disregard the remnant population of Alvord cutthroat trout that Dr. Behnke, Patrick Trotter, Joseph Tomelleri and many avid native trout enthusiasts have endorsed as a living remnant; the last best known hope of Alvord cutthroat restoration?

Indeed, the histories go on and on and on; and in reality, are still being written.  We currently have a unique opportunity before us to write what may be the final chapter of cutthroat trout restoration into the history books — with an exclamation point! 

One way, or the other, history will continue to be written.  The real question is; will the chapters that we pen in our lifetimes be the ones that cause the Alvord cutthroat trout to be able to swim into the streams of tomorrow? (13)

© KOD 12-2011


1) The Year of the Angler and the Year of the Trout, by Steve Raymond, 5-2005

2) (it was /2010/01/bringing-hope-the-lahontan-cutthroat-trout)

3) The Survivor from – published in Trout Winter 2010


5)  US Forest Service Species Conservation Report, July 28, 2006

6) Center for Biological Diversity

7) Trout and Salmon of North America, Robert J. Behnke, Pg. 210

(Overview of a successful Rio Grande cutthroat trout restoration project in New Mexico)


9) Trout and Salmon of North America, Robert J. Behnke, Pgs. 218-219

10) Trout and Salmon of North America, Robert J. Behnke, Pgs. 195-199

11) CUTTHROAT Native Trout of the West, Patrick C. Trotter, Pgs. 391-419

12) Colorado River Cutthroat Trout: A Technical Conservation Assessment 2008

13) For more on Alvord cutthroat trout see: Trout and Salmon of North America, Robert J. Behnke, 2002; CUTTHROAT Native Trout of the West, Trotter, 2nd Edition, 2008; About Trout, Robert J. Behnke, 2007 as well as a host of unique books such as especially the last chapter of Many Rivers to Cross: Of Good Running Water, Native Trout, and the Remains Of Wilderness by M.R. Montgomery or Trout of the Alvord Basin in Native Trout of North America by Robert Smith and other fascinating books or articles on native trout history and restoration.

© KOD 12-2011


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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2 Responses to To Those Who’ve Made what we Take for Granted – Into Reality

  1. Bruce E. May says:

    I’ve read with interest the comments concerning the contributions of Dr. Behnke, Hickman and Duff to cutthroat trout conservation. Their efforts have been significant. Another person that should be referenced for his significant and substantial work in conservation of Bonneville and Colorado River cutthroat is ……. Dale Hepworth. Dale retired from Utah Division of Wildlife Resources after being the regional fishery manager in the Southern Region for more than 20+ years. During his tenure as Regional Fishery Manager he was responsible for re-introducing both Bonneville and Colorado River cutthroat into numerous historical habitats. He also lead in the development of wild broods for both subspecies from which thousands of eggs have been (propagated) for both conservation and sport fishery purposes. In my 40+ years of working with cutthroat trout conservation, I believe that Dale stands out as the preeminant leader of Bonneville cutthroat conservation and deserves that recognition. Sincerely, Bruce E. May

  2. Thank you Bruce, for your input and recognition of Dale Hepworth. He should be recognized as one of those greatly valued individuals who through “patient yet persistent actions . . . truly cares enough to break out of their comfort zone, and to DO what is required to save and preserve these most precious of natural resources—living legacies—so that humankind may continue to see, experience and appreciate all that has been entrusted into our human hands.”

    Where the rescue and restoration of native cutthroat trout in the west is concerned, the success stories have surely all been interwoven by unsung heroes, such as Dale, who have tirelessly and relentlessly carried out the necessary actions to convert the desired objective—the hope of the revitalization and restoration of a species—into reality. We all greatly benefit from fisheries and wildlife personnel that are cut out of the same cloth as Dale.

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