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Partnership Protects America’s Largest Native Trout in Dry Nevada

By John Zablocki and Zeb Hogan Few places in the world keep their secrets as well as Northern Nevada.  Ask anyone driving across the northern half of the state along U.S. Highway 50 (widely referred to as the “Loneliest Road in America”) what they saw, and the most common reply will be “a whole-lot-of-nothin’.”  From...

Lahontan cutthroat trout in Nevada
Lahontan cutthroat trout (Onchorhynchus clarkii henshawi) is Nevada’s state fish. LCT were also one of the first species to be federally listed under the Endangered Species Act. Fisheries population monitoring by Trout Unlimited has demonstrated the return of larger, more fecund, migratory fish like the one pictured here to the Maggie Creek Basin following the restoration work. (Photograph by John Zablocki)

By John Zablocki and Zeb Hogan

Few places in the world keep their secrets as well as Northern Nevada.  Ask anyone driving across the northern half of the state along U.S. Highway 50 (widely referred to as the “Loneliest Road in America”) what they saw, and the most common reply will be “a whole-lot-of-nothin’.”  From the road, that’s what it may look like, but in Nevada, there is always more than first meets the eye.

The rare, intrepid individual who explores Nevada’s high deserts and rugged mountains will be handsomely rewarded.  Beyond the highways, tucked back between the desert playas and shaded from the sunbaked mountainsides are the state’s secrets: mountain micro-climes, over 50 peaks higher than 11,000 feet where stands of aspen and mountain mahogany provide cover for elk, deer, birds, and numerous other wild creatures.  Before reaching the desert and evaporating into thin air, there flow cold, clear, spring-fed trout streams.

The largest cutthroat trout in the world, the Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT, Onchorhynchus clarkii henshawi), is found here.  Or, it used to be…

“Salmon Trout”

When the explorer John C. Fremont first came to Nevada he described cutthroat trout that grew up to four feet (1.2 meters) in length, so large that he referred to the fish as “salmon trout.”   Fremont’s labeling of the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout (LCT) as ‘salmon trout’ was prescient.  To the Great Basin’s inhabitants LCT were arguably as culturally and ecologically significant as salmon were to the people of the Pacific Northwest; which is what makes the fish’s dramatic demise so concerning.  To put it bluntly: we messed up, big-time.

Since the arrival of settlers in the Great Basin, water withdrawals, blocked fish passage, road construction, habitat degradation, and introduced non-native species have led the species to dire straits of near extinction.

At present, LCT have gone extinct in all but about eight to nine percent of their historic stream habitats and now occupy less than one percent of their historic lake habitats.  They persist as naturally occurring, wild populations in only two lakes in the world, and many of the remaining streams they are found in are small and isolated, with low populations in constant danger of local extinction, especially under the threat of prolonged drought and temperature increase from climate change.

While this situation is bleak, it is by no means hopeless. Perhaps ironically, our role in the fish’s demise is precisely what gives hope for its recovery:  we know that our activities can have tremendous influence on aquatic environments, but it’s up to us to decide whether our influence is positive or negative, restorative or destructive.

And in one corner of Nevada there is a broad coalition of partners (miners, ranchers, government agencies, conservation groups), whose investments in freshwater conservation are, now more than ever, showing just how much more everyone benefits–Lahontan cutthroat trout and ranchers alike–from restoring and conserving coldwater ecosystems.

Nevada stream
To restore degraded stream habitats, ranchers changed from season-long grazing to a planned system of rotational grazing and restricted the cattle’s access to streams to certain spots called “water gaps.” This change in grazing management allowed riparian habitats to recover. The results were dramatic as seen in the change from 1980 (above) to 2011 (below). (Photograph by Elko BLM)
Nevada river restored
(Photograph by Elko BLM)

Roots of Restoration

Efforts to restore the Maggie Creek watershed began more than 20 years ago. In 1993, a group of partners including the Elko Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Newmont Mining Corp., and Elko Land and Livestock initiated the Maggie Creek Watershed Restoration Project (MCWRP) to enhance 82 miles (132 kilometers) of stream, 2,000 acres of riparian habitat, and 40,000 acres of upland watershed in the Maggie Creek basin.

Restoration activities included fencing critical riparian habitats for exclusion of grazing and applying improved or “prescription” grazing practices in other areas, riparian plantings, establishing conservation easements, and development of offsite (away from the stream) watering sources for livestock.

Riparian friendly grazing systems were also implemented throughout other parts of the basin. Trout Unlimited and other partners including several ranches, Barrick Goldstrike Mines, Inc., Elko and Eureka Counties, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation also joined in an effort to expand habitat restoration beyond the MCWRP and reconnect tributary habitats to the mainstem creek by removing culverts that were barriers to fish movement.

And though not official partners, the beavers that moved back in following habitat improvements have helped raise the water table and restore wetland vegetation to the floodplain.  Taken together, the MCWRP and the wider collaborative effort in the Maggie Creek Basin over the past 20 years has resulted in dramatic improvements in habitat conditions, creating a functional, hydrated floodplain and a healthy riparian zone with demonstrated benefits to LCT, migratory and resident birdlife, and other native biodiversity (insects, deer, raccoons, and countless other critters).

Fish culverts
Fish passage between Maggie Creek and its tributaries was blocked by culverts, which had the effect of turning a large interconnected population of fish into a collection of smaller, isolated populations at greater risk of extinction. To remedy this issue Newmont, along with help from several new partners including Barrick Goldstike Mines, Elko and Eureka Counties, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Trout Unlimited, replaced the offending culverts (top) with structures that allow fish passage (bottom). This work, completed in 2005, turned isolated fragments of a watershed into one of the largest population strongholds for Lahontan cutthroat trout. (Photograph by TU )
fish passageway
(Photograph by TU )

Perhaps the most important lesson from the success of the Maggie Creek Watershed Restoration Project is that what is good for wildlife is also good for people. Jon Griggs, a true Nevada cowboy and manager of Maggie Creek Ranch reflected that “Thanks to this restoration work, and those beavers which 20 years ago we would have killed, we had water this year on our ranch where I’m sure we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

If individual people from such different walks of life–the partners in this basin-wide effort–had chosen to fight each other instead of work together, LCT could have disappeared from the Maggie Creek Basin.  But because individuals in Newmont Mining Corporation chose to support environmental stewardship, because a group of ranchers were willing to change their management, because individuals from the Bureau of Land Management and other groups were willing to go the extra mile, and because everyone stayed committed to working together, a unique part of the West’s natural heritage still swims in the hidden mountain streams of Nevada.

Barrier on Maggie Creek, Nevada
In 2012, the threat of invasive species was addressed by constructing a physical barrier in the lower course of Maggie Creek to prevent invasion of invasive species (e.g., New Zealand mudsnails, bass, non-native trout) that have the potential to wreak havoc on the cutthroat trout. (Photograph by Elko BLM)

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Meet the Author

Zeb Hogan
Zeb Hogan is an expert in megafishes who serves as an assistant professor at the University of Nevada—Reno.