Paiute Cutthroat Trout Return to Silver King Creek for First Time in 71 Years

  • By Joe Barker, Public Affairs Specialist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Reno Office
Biologists and a Forest Service pack train hike into the mountains. A woman rides a mule leading a pack train through a wilderness area with researchers hiking behind. Biologists walk along a mountain stream meadow. A man hikes along a wilderness trail leading a group of researchers.Biologists walk along a mountain stream meadow.

In 1946, the world was recovering from the devastation of World War II. In April, the League of Nations held its final meeting and in London the United Nations held its first General Assembly.

In America, there were major shortages in jobs and housing for those returning from war. In July, the bikini swimsuit made its debut in Paris and the Bikini Atoll was the site of nuclear testing.

A wooden sign with White Mountain Wilderness written on it sits on the edge of a trail.

A U.S. Forest Service sign indicates the boundary to the White Mountain Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest. (All photos below are courtesy of Joe Barker, USFWS)

A group of researchers hike into steep mountainous terrain.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel Nikole Dunkley (looking at camera), Aimee Taylor (behind her), and other researchers climb into the White Mountains Wilderness.

A woman wearing a cowgirl hat tends to a mule used to carry all the teams gear.

Liz Vandentoorn with one of her eight mules used to transport gear and pack out the fish.

While these events made headlines, a more obscure fact went unnoticed. A rare species of fish, the Paiute cutthroat trout, were transplanted from Silver King Creek in California to North Fork Cottonwood Creek with little fanfare, and have not returned; until now.

On Aug. 24, 2017, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, in conjunction with members of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), released 86 Paiute cutthroat trout in Silver King Creek above Llewellyn Falls in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness area of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

The project was the culmination of two years of planning to enhance the Silver King Creek population that had been devastated by years of drought and then uncharacteristic flooding.

“We have a long-term dataset showing a substantial decline in the population in Upper Fish Valley,” said Service biologist Chad Mellison. “The team decided we needed to augment this population with other donor populations including North Fork Cottonwood Creek. Secondly, we needed to conduct population assessments in North Fork Cottonwood Creek to determine if the population there was viable enough to support transplantation to Silver King Creek.” Mellison has been working with Service partners on the project for 16 years.

The plan was to transplant fish from North Fork Cottonwood Creek to Upper Silver King Creek above Llewelyn Falls to boost the diminishing population.

Ultimately, the team intends to put fish back in their historic range below Llewelyn Falls.

The journey would begin near Bishop, California, where Service biologists, the USFS and the CDFW met at the White Mountain Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest. At just under 10,000 feet in elevation, the nearby North Fork Cottonwood Creek is ideal Paiute cutthroat trout habitat with its cold, well-oxygenated waters and low overhanging vegetation. Its winding path through the White Mountains varies from tiny, swift moving rapids to deep pools shadowed by giant, granite boulders.

Biologists, volunteers and pack mules laden with electrofishing equipment, waders, nets and other gear began the four-mile hike from base camp to North Fork Cottonwood Creek at dawn.

The next hour was a trip back in time as they followed the footsteps of the original scientists who had the foresight to relocate the fish to North Fork Cottonwood Creek.

Not only were they retrieving the descendants of the fish they sought to protect, according to a paper written by Elden H. Vestal, who documented the work of the original team, today’s scientists were returning the trout in the same week of the same month.

Vestal documented the original transplant of the Paiute cutthroat trout by the Eastern Sierra Packers Association and the USFS of 401 fish from Silver King Creek to North Fork Cottonwood Creek.

The need to transplant was based on declining numbers due to poaching in the Upper Fish Valley of Upper Silver King Creek.

A survey expedition launched in July of 1946 to the White Mountains determined that North Fork Cottonwood Creek would be an ideal location for the transplant effort.

Exactly 71 years later, the foresight of biologists from the past would play an important role in ensuring the future survival of the Paiute cutthroat trout.

Dawne Emery, an environmental scientist with CDFW has worked with Paiute cutthroat trout in North Fork Cottonwood Creek since 1995. Relocating the trout to Silver King Creek was an item that has been on her career “to do” list. She said the preparation for the relocation involved long days and was physically challenging.

“We collaborated with UC Davis and CDFW Region 2 in planning for the translocation since before 2014. When we received the final genetics management plan for which UCD was contracted, we were able to implement Elden Vestal’s vision of using the Paiute cutthroat trout in this refuge to supplement and help restore Silver King Creek trout to their former habitat,” said Emery.

Although modern equipment, like electrofishing gear, made the job of catching the fish much easier than their predecessors, they were still dependent on less high-tech gear like pack mules and fish cans just as their predecessors were.

In fact, this effort could not have succeeded without a pack team lead by Liz Vandentoorn from the Inyo National Forest Region 5 Center of Excellence.

A woman handles a metal box with power cords to set up an electrofishing unit to help catch the fish.

Aimee Taylor, California Department Fish and Wildlife, sets up the electrofishing system. When used correctly, a small amount of current passes into the water which causes a convulsion in the fish giving the scientist just enough time to net it.

A hand plugs in a power cord into an electrofishing system.

Aimee Taylor attaches the cords needed to power and operate the electrofishing unit.

Men and women dressed in waders gather around fish caught from a nearby mountain stream.

Once the fish are brought in, researchers quickly gather the data needed.

A trout, the size of a hand, is caught in a net to be measured.

A Paiute cutthroat trout is caught and measured.

The hike to North Fork Cottonwood Creek was through a surreal landscape.

From dusty, rocky trails to lush meadows with sheer granite cliffs looming overhead. Pine trees clung precariously to the side of rocky outcroppings, where naked branches reached for the clear blue sky.

With electrofishing, the job of catching the fish is easier on both the fish and the scientist; a small amount of current passes into the water which causes a convulsion in the fish giving the scientist just enough time to net it.

However, the fish are quick to recover, so the person on the net has to be fast and accurate. 

In a little more than five hours, the team measured and took genetic samples from 86 Paiute cutthroat trout. The fish were then placed in large live wells and put back in the creek where they would spend the night.

In the morning they would be packed in fish cans and hauled out by Vandentoorn and her mule team.

Jeff Weaver, a senior scientist with CDFW is the program lead of the Heritage and Wild Trout Program. The agency is spearheading the effort to reestablish the Paiute cutthroat trout in their historic habitat in lower Silver King Creek. 

Two men dump fish from a can into a tank on back of a truck.

Ben Ewing, right, assists Dave Ford, both CDFW, with transferring the trout from cans to a specially outfitted tank on a CDFW truck that keeps the water at a constant temperature of 58 degrees and the water oxygenated to prevent loss of fish on the five-and-a-half-hour drive.

A pack train of three horses and six mules is lead toward into the mountains.

Joe Cereghino, owner of Little Antelope Pack Station, leads his pack train, with USFWS biologist, Chad Mellison and CDFW biologist, Bill Somer, along to escort the trout to their release point above Llewellyn Falls in the Carson Iceberg Wilderness area of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

Three men stand in a mountain stream releasing fish back into the water.

Chad Mellison, USFWS, Jim Harvey, USFS, and Bill Somer, CDFW, complete Eldin Vestal’s vision by releasing the first Paiute cutthroat trout back into Silver King Creek after 71 years.

“I was one of the leads for the collection and transport from North Fork Cottonwood Creek, so I wasn’t able to directly engage in their reintroduction to Silver King Creek,” said Weaver. “However, this has been a long time in the works and an important step toward hopefully bolstering the diminished population above Llewellyn Falls. Increasing the population’s size in this part of the drainage will be an important step toward having the numbers of fish needed to repopulate the historic range, below the falls.”

Weaver and the other team members from CDFW were instrumental in the trout collection process. After working on the project since 2005, Weaver said he’s proud to be involved in this project and will continue to participate in the planning and oversight team’s regular coordination, and will engage the CDFW field crew and program staff as needed. 

With the fish loaded in the cans, Vandentoorn and her team of mules packed the fish just over five miles to rendezvous with a CDFW truck equipped with a tank to haul them to Little Antelope Pack Station about 100 miles northwest. Vandentoorn brought the captured fish through sections of the trail that appeared impassable with no injuries to the mules or fish. The specially outfitted tank on the truck keeps the water at a constant temperature of 58 degrees and the water oxygenated to prevent loss of fish on the five-and-a-half-hour drive.

Once the truck reached Little Antelope Pack Station, the fish and a lot of ice are once again transferred to cans and loaded back on a team of mules, this time led by Joe Cereghino, owner of Little Antelope Pack Station.

The ice is added to keep the water temperature as cold as possible for the salmonids which require cold water to survive.

The project’s lead biologist, Bill Somer, joined the team at Little Antelope to assist with the relocation to Silver King Creek. His work with the project dates back to 1988 when he worked on a survey team assisting with electrofishing surveys. He became the lead biologist for the project in 1993.

“Richard Flint and I were the first biologists to hike through the Silver King Canyon back in 1993, identifying a number of water falls through the gorge,” said Somer. “This led us to the concept of restoring the fish to its historic range below Llewellyn Falls.”

Somer worked closely with Mellison and others on the Revised Recovery Plan for Paiute Cutthroat Trout, which was revised in 2004 to improve the status and habitat of the trout and eliminate competition from non-native salmonid species. He also worked closely with the Service to provide fish population trend data for recovery plan updates and status reviews to inform the management direction of those plans.

USFS biologist Jim Harvey, another long-time project member, met the team at the release site. He and fellow USFS biologist Kayla Smith hiked eight miles to the release site from Little Antelope earlier in the day.

With the sun just touching the tops of Fish Valley Peak, the team arrived at the release site at Silver King Creek above Llewellyn Falls. Mellison, Somer and Harvey shared the thrill of releasing the first of 86 trout back into Silver King Creek. Not one fish had been lost during collection and transport.

In my experience, scientists are not often at a loss for words, but this was one of those times.

The culmination of decades of work will do that to you.

Somer: “Very exciting to plant fish back into Silver King Creek from North Fork Cottonwood Creek, 71 years later!”

Mellison: “Seventy one years later the Paiute [cutthroat trout] are returning to Silver King Creek. There are really no words. This is just a wonderful experience; a great feeling.”

Harvey: “It feels awesome! After 71 years! These fish have been gone since the 40s! Back into Silver King! Awesome!”

Emery: “I am honored and proud to have been able to assist. Moving these fish back to Silver King after all these years underscores the importance of refuges—especially out of basin refuges—for the viability of threatened species.“

Due to its limited habitat, Somer once called the Paiute cutthroat trout “the rarest, but most recoverable fish in the United States.”

With the most recent success of this partnership, and due in great part to the foresight of conservationists from the past, the future looks bright for this iridescent salmonid.

 

A group of men and women pose for the camera wearing waders in a meadow.

(L to R) Bill Somers, CDFW, Jim Harvey, USFS, Chad Mellison, USFWS, John Hanson, CDFW, Kayla Smith, USFS and Joe Cereghino.