A return to the 'Wilderness'

More than 70 years after the original transplant of 400 Paiute cutthroat trout from Silver King Creek to North Fork Cottonwood Creek, the rare fish were transplanted once again to their native home.  Above, Liz Vandentoorn, of the U.S. Forest Service, guides the pack train and crew to North Fork Cottonwood Creek. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

Service biologists, partner agencies use pack mule train to transport Paiute cutthroat trout back into Carson Iceberg Wilderness after 71 years

By Joe Barker
October 26, 2017

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.

The Paiute cutthroat trout is a colorful fish and native to Silver King Creek and tributaries in the headwaters of the East Fork Carson River. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

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.

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 and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, released 86 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.

Service biologist Chad Mellison waits for the rest of the group during the three-and-a-half hour horseback ride from Little Antelope Pack Station to the release point at Silver King Creek. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

“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.”

Dawne Emery and project partners electrofishing to capture Paiute cutthroat trout in North Fork Cottonwood Creek. Courtesy photo: Ben Ditto

The journey would begin near Bishop, California, where Service biologists, the Forest Service 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.

Aimee Taylor, a science aid with CDFW, sets up the electrofishing gear at North Fork Cottonwood Creek. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

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

Aimee Taylor (with net) Scott Mills, and Jeff Weaver (rear) electrofishing at North Fork Cottonwood Creek. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

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,” said Emery. “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 trout to their former habitat.”

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 Paiute cutthroat trout swims in North Fork Cottonwood Creek.. Courtesy photo: Ben Ditto

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.

CDFW personnel Nicole Dunkley (looking at camera), Aimee Taylor (behind her) and the rest of the group hiking in to the North Fork Cottonwood Creek area. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

With electrofishing, the job of catching the fish is easier on both the fish and the scientist; a small amount of electrical current passes into the water which stuns 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.

“This has been a long time in the works and an important step toward hopefully bolstering the diminished population above Llewellyn Falls,” said Weaver. “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.”

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.

Dave Ford (Left) and Ben Ewing load the fish onto the CDFW truck to haul them to the Little Antelope Pack Station. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

Once the truck reached the Silver King trailhead at Little Antelope Pack Station, the fish and a large quantity 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.

Chad Mellison, Bill Somer and Joe Cereghino taking the fish to Silver King Creek. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

Somer worked closely with Mellison on the Revised Recovery Plan for Paiute Cutthroat Trout, which was updated 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.

Forest Service biologist Jim Harvey, another long-time project member, met the team and along with Kayla Smith (also a Forest Service biologist) hiked eight miles to the release site from Little Antelope earlier in the day.

All in a day's work: Chad Mellison (left), Jim Harvey and Kayla Smith gather after the project was completed. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

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.

Chad Mellison (left), Jim Harvey and Bill Somer shared the thrill of releasing the first Paiute cutthroat trout back into Silver King Creek. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

Scientists are not often at a loss for words, but with the culmination of decades of work, they were left speechless:

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 for this iridescent salmonid looks bright.

Bill Somer, Jim Harvey, Chad Mellison, John Hanson, Kayla Smith, Joe Cereghino. Credit: USFWS

While capturing Paiute cutthroat trout for the project, the team also gathered genetic data from fish on North Fork Cottonwood Creek. Credit: Joe Barker/USFWS

Nicole Dunkley, CDFW, measures a trout taken out of North Fork Cottonwood Creek.  Credit: Joe BarkerUSFWS

Kayla Smith and Jim Harvey head back to camp after releasing Paiute cutthroat trout into Silver King Creek. Credit: USFWS

Learn more about the Paiute cutthroat trout on our partner's website, California Department of Fish and Wildlife - Paiute Cutthroat Trout.

John Heil

Joe Barker, public affairs specialist,

Reno Fish and Wildlife Office

About the writer...

Joe Barker is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Northern Nevada. A retired U.S. Army master sergeant, Joe spends most of his free time either watching college football or wishing he was watching college football.