California’s Paiute cutthroat trout – the rarest trout in North America – is finally back in its native high Sierra habitat thanks to a collaborative, multiagency effort to reintroduce the fish in Silver King Creek on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
“A project of this magnitude that took several decades could not have been completed without state, federal and other partners working tirelessly together,” said Bill Dunkelberger, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest supervisor.
“You’ve got to celebrate good times,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham. “If you forget to celebrate, you’re overlooking a remarkable success story – bringing these fish back home.”
The Paiute cutthroat’s small native range habitat degraded by historic livestock grazing, and competition with non-native trout, led to the species being one of the first listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1967. In 1975, the species was down listed to threatened, which allowed California to manage the species.
Only an unexpected turn of events saved the species from disappearing. In the early 1900s, Basque sheepherders moved some of the fish outside of their native range where natural barriers protect a genetically pure population.
Other efforts included removing non-native fish and restocking from pure sources, including those created by the Forest Service, the State of California, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Recreational fishing was also closed in the Silver King Creek drainage in 1934. Later, livestock grazing was closed so habitat could be restored.
The fish were collected that morning from a source 2 miles away and transported by mules to Silver King Creek. The fish were able to acclimate for several minutes in water from the creek before being released among cheers and applause – and a few tears – by those who spent decades working toward the historic homecoming.
“This is a lifetime achievement for those working to recover the rarest trout in North America,” said Lee Ann Carranza, acting field supervisor for the USFWS Reno office. “This remarkable partnership has allowed Paiute cutthroat trout to be returned to their entire native range without threat.”
Restoring Paiute cutthroat trout to their native Silver King Creek nearly doubles the amount of habitat available to the fish and is considered key to their long-term survival and potential delisting.
Monitoring and additional restocking from other refuge populations is planned in future years to aid genetic diversity and to help natural reproduction.