A mammoth trout, thought to be extinct, could live again in a Nevada river

Reno, Nevada — Professor Mary Peacock is a geneticist, first and foremost. But she’s also a detective, and she’s working on a tough case. It’s difficult, because the victim is thought to have died about 60 years ago. And the case has a peculiar twist: The question is not who the murderer was — that’s been well-known for years — but whether the victim is really dead.

Professor Peacock’s case revolves around a legendary fish — the mammoth Lahontan cutthroat trout that once lived in the Truckee River, which flows from Lake Tahoe and feeds Pyramid Lake, 35 miles north of Reno. The fish is thought to have died out in the 1940s, but Peacock believes otherwise, and in her lab at the University of Nevada, she has set out to prove it.

From the formaldehyde- and methanol-filled jars that line the shelves of her lab, she takes out 80- to 100-year-old Lahontan cutthroat specimens. She then grinds fin and muscle tissue, from which she extracts genetic information that can be compared to that of living fish found nearly 300 miles from the Truckee River Lahontan cutthroat’s original home.

If Peacock does find a living fish with direct bloodlines to the vanished Truckee River Lahontan cutthroat, it will have huge implications for the lake and the Truckee River. Not only could anglers once again haul 40-pound-plus fish from the river basin, but the trout could serve as the cornerstone of a recovery effort for the river.

But as Peacock works to identify the rightful heir to the Truckee, it’s becoming clear that restoration won’t be easy, thanks to a tangle of federal, state and tribal politics. The recovery effort also raises deeper questions about ecological restoration, and just how far we’re willing to go to bring back the West’s endangered species.

Who killed the Lahontan cutthroat?

Pyramid Lake — named for the chiseled, shark’s-tooth island that rises from the water — looks like a wide and majestic mirage, landlocked in its desert valley. Pyramid is a remnant of glacial Lake Lahontan, which once spread across 5.5 million acres of the Great Basin in northwestern Nevada, northeastern California and a small piece of Oregon. The Lahontan cutthroat, which likely descended from coastal cutthroat trout, evolved in Lake Lahontan 600,000 years ago, developing a tolerance to the warm, salty waters of the lake, which had no outlet to the sea.

Then, about 8,000 years ago, the glacial lake receded, leaving behind smaller, isolated lakes. Within these lakes and their feeder streams, individual populations of Lahontan cutthroat developed minute genetic adaptations to their new habitat. In Pyramid Lake, the Lahontan cutthroat evolved into a piscivorous species — that is, it began to feed on other fish, and so moved up the food chain.

For millennia, bands of Paiute Indians sustained themselves on the lake’s bountiful cutthroat and the cui-ui sucker. But in 1874, President Grant placed the Pyramid Lake Paiute on a reservation surrounding the lake and lower Truckee River, and set the stage for massive change. The tribe soon built a cannery that exported up to 50 tons of Lahontan cutthroat trout per year to groceries and restaurants across the country.

Then, in 1905, Congress ordered the newly formed U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to build Derby Dam, 30 miles upstream of Pyramid Lake. The dam diverted half the Truckee’s flow into the neighboring Carson River for irrigation, lowering levels in Pyramid Lake, de-watering the mouth of the river and destroying spawning habitat for both trout and cui-ui.

Politicians and celebrities such as Clark Gable still came to fish for the remaining 20-pound trout. But the loss of spawning grounds and the continued angling pressures overwhelmed the species. While other strains of Lahontan cutthroat survive elsewhere in the Great Basin, by 1944, the Lahontan cutthroat had disappeared from the Truckee River watershed.

The strain game

Three decades later, with the passage of the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Lahontan cutthroat trout as endangered, and committed to recover the fish throughout all the Great Basin watersheds where the fish once existed.

The Truckee Lahontan cutthroat had been given up for dead. But in 1977, a graduate student discovered Lahontans on the other side of the state in the Pilot Peak drainage, along the Nevada-Utah border. Researchers believe the trout were stocked from Pyramid Lake, possibly around the turn of the 20th century, by state fishery managers.

A 2002 study by Jennifer Nielsen of the U.S. Geological Survey found promising evidence that cutthroats from Pilot Peak are, indeed, related to the former Truckee River population; Mary Peacock’s work — which she hopes to finish this summer — could clinch the association.

If the Pilot Peak fish are Truckee River Lahontans, says Fish and Wildlife fisheries manager Lisa Heki, they are likely “most able to adapt and persist in the (Truckee River) basin.”

But even if Peacock can prove that the Truckee River Lahontan lives, a series of obstacles lies ahead. Cutthroat recovery won’t be successful without the cooperation of other fish and wildlife management agencies, which have their own agendas.

During the 1970s, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe developed a Lahontan cutthroat fishery in Pyramid Lake, using several stocks from outside the Truckee Basin. Those fish interbred to create a genetically mixed stock now known as the Pyramid Lake strain, which the tribe raises in its hatchery. Although the fish don’t rival the leviathan trout of old, they’ve helped the tribe develop a recreational fishery in the lake that brings in half a million dollars a year in permits alone. The tribe will obviously be reluctant to sacrifice that fishery for the sake of recovering “genetically correct” Lahontan.

Getting the states of Nevada and California to sign on to the plan is another hurdle. Both states have stocked non-native fish, such as rainbow and brown trout, in the Truckee River, which is the most heavily fished river in Nevada. But the rainbow trout’s success could thwart efforts to re-establish Lahontan cutthroat, because the non-native fish can interbreed with cutthroats and muddy their bloodline.

Fishery managers would have to cease stocking — or perhaps even remove — non-native fish to ensure recovery of the Pilot Peak strain in the Truckee. This could signal the end of the non-native fisheries and bring a loss of revenue for the state. Fearing any decrees from the federal government that would abruptly end non-native stocking, Nevada walked away from the formal recovery process in 2001.

“We thought we were losing control on the river, and that’s why we left the meetings,” says Mark Warren of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “It sounds like nitpicking, but the ESA brings some real strong rules and regulations. We want to gradually restore the run and maintain an active fishery.”

The effort to re-establish the “genetically correct” fish in the Truckee River Basin is an exercise in futility, says Warren. “That (original) strain is extinct,” he says. “You can get a lot of the characteristics (in the Pilot Peak strain), but (the original population) is extinct, and Pyramid Lake is different now anyway.”

Recreation and re-creation

There is hope yet for the Truckee River Lahontan cutthroat — if two questions can be answered affirmatively: Does the Pilot Peak stock retain the adaptive traits of the old Truckee fish — the one that grew to 40-pound monsters? And can the Pilot Peak strain survive in the dramatically altered Truckee River Basin?

Mary Peacock says the answer to the first question is clear. The Pilot Peak Lahontan cutthroat population is approximately 80 years old, what she calls an evolutionary blink of an eye: “The chance they’ve lost the evolutionary traits to live in the lake is pretty small.”

Answers to the second question should come with a series of ongoing tests to see how the Pilot Peak fish stack up against the other strains. If, in fact, the Pilot Peak fish can thrive in the Truckee, both the states and the tribe seem willing to listen.

“If (Fish and Wildlife) gets a fish that works well,” says Warren of Nevada Wildlife, “we’re willing to look at it.”

That sentiment is echoed by the Pyramid Lake tribe’s Albert John: “If we can get a bigger fish, then that’s what we’re after.”

That could finally fuse the states’ and tribe’s recreational interests with the federal recovery goals.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to build gradual support for the federal recovery plan, instead of invoking the Endangered Species Act to bring about immediate change. “We could (start stocking the Pilot Peak strain) now,” says Fish and Wildlife’s Heki, “but we don’t want to act unilaterally.” Flexibility and cooperation from Fish and Wildlife now could bring a greater commitment from the states and tribe toward recovery later.

The effort will also get a big boost from a host of river-restoration measures already being put into place (see story below). Taken together, those measures could transform the Truckee River from a fragmented, hatchery-reliant non-native fishery to one with self-sustaining populations of native Lahontan cutthroat trout.

“What the recovery process is trying to do is re-create the natural systems,” says Professor Peacock, “so humans don’t have to keep moving fish around for the next century.”

The author writes from Paonia, Colorado.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Lisa Heki, 775-861-6300, lisa_g_heki@fws.gov. Nevada Division of Wildlife Mark Warren, 775-688-1535, markeraw@govmail.state.nv.us Pyramid Lake Fisheries Albert John, 775-476-0500 University of Nevada, Reno Mary Peacock, 775-784-1958, mpeacock@unr.nevada.edu.