WRC Blog

Reviving a Great Basin Lifeline for Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

Jan 5th, 2020  |  Written by Western Rivers Conservancy

Reviving a Great Basin Lifeline for Lahontan Cutthroat Trout
Lahontan Cutthroat Trout

In the arid, far reaches of southeast Oregon and northern Nevada, Western Rivers Conservancy is embarking on a game-changing effort to recover one of the West’s most endangered fish: Lahontan cutthroat trout.

Lahontan cutthroat—the state fish of Nevada—are a large, bright-orange species of cutthroat that once were abundant across thousands of miles of streams in the Great Basin. Today, the fish are on the brink of extinction because the pristine, cold-water habitat they depend on has been rapidly disappearing for a century, coupled with hybridization and competition from non-native fish.

The primary hope for Lahontan cutthroat lies with the increasingly rare perennial streams that flow cold and clear through the dry sagebrush country of the Great Basin. Chief among these streams is McDermitt Creek, which drains the south slope of Oregon’s Trout Creek Mountains and crosses the state line into the Great Basin of Nevada.

To protect 15 miles of McDermitt Creek and key tributary streams, WRC is poised to purchase a lynchpin property, Disaster Peak Ranch. A working cattle ranch for generations, the property owes its superb condition to the efforts of the current owners, who have a strong conservation ethic and have prioritized healthy habitat alongside ranching since the 1950s.

Building on that stewardship legacy, WRC now has the opportunity to permanently conserve the ranch, allowing our partners to restore and reconnect 55 miles of stream habitat on and around the property. This will double the number of stream miles available to Lahontan cutthroat in the species’ northwest range, a huge boost for this fish’s chance at survival. WRC’s efforts will also allow fisheries biologists to remove non-native rainbow trout from McDermitt Creek, then reintroduce genetically pure populations of Lahontan cutthroat to the full length of McDermitt Creek, where they once thrived.

Our vision is to protect and improve habitat while keeping the ranch in operation, contributing to the local economy and continuing its legacy of responsible land use in balance with conservation goals. Bordered on all sides by BLM land, including seven BLM-managed wilderness study areas, Disaster Peak Ranch and its surrounding landscape will continue to support important wildlife species like greater sage grouse, the colorfully-plumed bird that indicates healthy sagebrush grasslands. The area is also home to Columbia spotted frog, pygmy rabbit, mule deer, California bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain elk, bobcat, great horned owl, coyote, cougar, raccoon, muskrat, beaver, golden eagle and sandhill crane.

As we work to identify the ideal long-term steward for the land, we are working in close partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Trout Unlimited and other organizations, each of which regard Disaster Peak Ranch as imperative to Lahontan cutthroat recovery. As the project progresses, we are moving toward a shared vision of thriving, self-sustaining runs of Lahontan cutthroat along the full length of McDermitt Creek to ensure this beautiful and important fish survives into the next century and beyond.