Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

Pyramid Lake, Nevada, once the home of Lahontan cutthroat trout. How an Isolated Transfer and a Dedicated Hatchery Saved This Ancient Strain Or so it was

  • By: Ted Williams
Pyramid Lake, Nevada, once the home of Lahontan cutthroat trout.

How an Isolated Transfer and a Dedicated Hatchery Saved This Ancient Strain

Or so it was thought.

Fast forward to the 1970s.

In the intervening years the Lahontan cutthroat trout had been added to the list of species threatened with extinction, and by chance it had come to reside outside its original native range. The transfer of trout from Pyramid Lake into a small previously fishless stream, Morrison Creek, on Pilot Peak, Utah, has proved priceless in the recovery of this imperiled trout. When and by whom this transfer was made, no one knows, but Bryce Nelson of the Utah Department of Natural Resources subsequently transferred some Morrison Creek fish to nearby fishless Bettridge Creek on Bureau of Land Management property, as a further precaution. Genetics studies commissioned by Lisa Heki, leader of the integrated fishery complex, and conducted by Dr. Mary Peacock at the University of Nevada- Reno, reveal that the fish that reside on this Utah mountainside are in fact pureblood descendants of the original lakedwelling form of Lahontan cutthroat trout. And they have since come to reside in the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery.

The fish that Bigelow wrangled from a hatchery tank is a Pilot Peak fish, or more accurately, a Pyramid Lake fish from Pilot Peak. Through Heki's 12 years of experience working to recover this trout species, and her vision for the future, the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery has changed from concentrating on nonnative put-and-take sport fisheries, to the conservation of a threatened native species.

Ironically, one with even greater sport fishing qualities. The hatchery complex also has a willing and able partner in conservation-minded Steve Doudy, who owns the land over which Morrison Creek flows.

Building brood stocks from wild fish takes time. Bigelow and his crew nurture the brood stock methodically, not for maximum sustained yield, but by careful management to maintain genetic integrity in a robust stock. Lahontan cutthroat trout are the only fish on station here. Families are kept separate; the family founders are kept separate; the young are graded frequently and separated to keep bigger fish from eating smaller fish. The need to do so speaks to the innate piscivorous habits of lake-form fish. Even at the earliest ages they tend toward cannibalism. To keep the "wild" in the fish, fertilized eggs from trout captured in Morrison Creek are brought to the hatchery and infused into the brood stock. The hatchery's involvement in recovery came on strong in 2001 with a successful hatch of eggs from Morrison Creek fish. In 2004, 13,197 fish were released into Pyramid Lake where they are expected to grow exceedingly fast and contribute significantly to the recreational fishery managed by the Paiute Indian tribe.

The hatchery continues to meet rigorous standards for fish health given that some of the fish will be stocked into Fallen Leaf Lake near ??. California, and perhaps into Lake Tahoe.

The fish culture expertise will also be put to use this year when eggs will be incubated at the Marble Bluff Fish Passage Facility in water from the Truckee River, so as to imprint the young fish to the river water. The intent is to condition the fish to swim back as adults into the Truckee to spawn, several years from now. But it will be a few years before that success will be measured.

The future of Lahontan cutthroat trout is in Bigelow's hands. He puts the fish back into the tank, and with a flit of the tail it dashes away, seemingly faster than its shadow.

Craig Springer is a regular contributor from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

For more information contact him at: The Lahontan cutthroat trout evolved in ancient Lake Lahontan, which at its maximum, inundated about 8,600 square miles of northwestern Nevada and parts of the surrounding states.