Lahontan cutthroat are the only trout species native to Lake Tahoe, yet they completely disappeared from that ecosystem by the 1930’s. This was mainly due to sweeping shifts in natural resource management, like logging and overfishing from early settlement in the West in the 1900s.
As numbers of Lahontan cutthroat trout dwindled, their position as top predator in Lake Tahoe was backfilled by stocked nonnative sportfish such as lake trout, rainbow trout and kokanee salmon. The cutthroat continued to decline across its range and was eventually listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1970. Since listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been developing and implementing strategies to help the trout return home.
Beginning in 2002, the Service’s Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex started working to restore the iconic lake-form of Lahontan cutthroat trout in Fallen Leaf Lake, located in the Tahoe Basin. Through years of reintroduction, research, adaptive management and partnerships, much has been learned about the conservation needs of Lahontan cutthroat trout in Lake Tahoe.
After years of planning and hard work, the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery, for the first time ever, released approximately 2,000 fish into Lake Tahoe on Oct. 5, 2019. The stocking event occurred in tandem with the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit’s Fall Fish Festival near South Lake Tahoe, California.
“Lahontan National Fish Hatchery’s broodstock population represents the genetic legacy of the original Lahontan cutthroat trout population that once thrived in Lake Tahoe,” said Lisa Heki, project leader for the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex. “With this stocking event, the trout is returning home.”
The 12-14 inch, colorful fish were released from a large holding truck, through a stocking tube. The trout could be seen darting through the clear, crisp alpine lake, and even ran into a few spectators legs as they swam to freedom.
Stocking will enhance angling opportunities in Lake Tahoe and improve visibility of this important native trout in local communities and for those recreating in the area.
The hatchery followed up with a second stocking on Oct. 6, at the same location near Kiva Beach along Lake Tahoe. Over the course of the Fall Fish Festival, several hundred people watched the hatchery reintroduce the native Lahontan cutthroat trout into Lake Tahoe.
For Heki, the event is a highlight of her career. “It was exhilarating to see the native trout return to their home waters in beautiful Lake Tahoe after years of working for this moment,” she said. “Sharing it with the enthusiastic and supportive people of Lake Tahoe made it truly special and encouraging for the future of this unique trout.”
A third and final stocking effort was held on Oct. 7, 2019 at Sand Harbor State Beach in Nevada in partnership with Nevada Department of Wildlife.
A total of 5,000 fish were released over the course of three days, all with the adipose fin clipped to help anglers identify stocked fish. About 2,000 of these fish also received an external tag known as a “floy tag.” The tags encourage anglers to call a hotline and report the stocked fish along with as much information as possible about the catch.
“The data gathered from the floy tagged fish will help us understand how Lahontan cutthroat trout are using habitat in the lake,” said Nevada Department of Wildlife Fisheries biologist Travis Hawks. “This information will be crucial in the future recovery of the species in the Tahoe Basin.”
Reports from the public will assist Nevada Department of Wildlife and the Service in collecting data and information about the movement and survival of these fish after release.
Partners in this effort include California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service – Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the Nevada Department of Wildlife.