Trout Unlimited Policy Statement on Lahontan Cutthroat Trout Restoration in the Truckee River Watershed
5/23/2000 — — Trout Unlimited’s mission is “to conserve, protect, and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.” For more than 40 years TU has done just that, from local “rock rolling” habitat improvement work to broad efforts to restore and protect resources at watershed and species-wide levels. In doing so, TU has been the driving force behind countless enhancements of American recreational opportunities without ever losing sight of the fact that fisheries management must be based on sound biological foundations.
TU’s mission is set forth in detail in a 1998 document called Trout Unlimited’s North American Salmonid Policy: Science-Based Guidance for21st Century Coldwater Conservation (see below). The policy provides the following explanation of the mission statement quoted above:
“The long-term goal implicit in this mission statement is achieving self-sustainability of salmonid populations and species (as opposed to simple short-term enhancements of abundance). To achieve this goal, TU recognizes that the best available scientific information must be incorporated into advocacy policies that guide local or national activity. New information in the areas of salmonid ecology, genetics, and conservation, combined with the growing threats to many native salmonid species and populations, have created new priorities for conservation. This policy specifies TU’s advocacy positions for salmonid resource issues by incorporating currently available scientific understanding of the complex suite of processes that regulate the abundance, distribution, and diversity of salmonid populations, subspecies, and species.”
TU is, therefore, committed to native salmonid restoration. This includes Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT). TU is also committed to the “complex suite of processes” through which salmonids are managed. The inter-agency initiative currently underway on the Truckee River is one of those processes.
Native trout have always been a good measure of watershed health. A basic tenet of watershed health that has guided TU for decades is the belief that if salmonids have disappeared from their native habitat, or if salmonids are unable to sustain themselves through natural reproduction, then something is broken. Restoration entails fixing a watershed’s broken parts. This guiding principle is the reason that TU is actively participating in the LCT restoration process currently underway.
The Truckee River is not a healthy watershed by any but the most generous estimate. It has been dammed, diverted, channelized; its banks have been stripped of vegetation and water quality degraded; and where big LCT once spawned, the hatchery truck now makes regular deliveries to provide artificial enhancement to the fishery. This litany of degraded resources is not the fabrication of environmental extremists; it is available to anyone who wishes to read the Environmental Impact Report of the Truckee River Operating Agreement. Clearly, improvements could be made within the Truckee watershed.
At the same time, the Truckee is not a hopeless case. Certain sections of the river do support limited natural reproduction of salmonids. Recreational opportunities, including angling and boating, are available. The administrative and legal processes currently underway regarding proposed modifications to Derby and Farad dams clearly indicate that biological and recreational resource considerations are at last being taken seriously in the debate over the Truckee’s future. It is against this background of progress and hope that TU has entered into the LCT restoration process.
In addition to maintaining both a staff and a volunteer presence at the LCT stakeholders’ meetings, TU is actively involved in the Farad and Derby dam issues. TU volunteers are working with Tribal representatives in Nevada and with schools in California on LCT projects that help to educate local communities regarding this native salmonid. Finally, in recognition of TU’s stated mission of fostering science-based salmonid restoration, TU has hired a highly respected geneticist, Dr. Rick Williams, to provide independent technical peer review to the work of the inter-agency teams assigned to the LCT effort.
This restoration process is in its infancy, despite the LCT’s long history — over 25 years — on the Endangered Species Act. Apart from a general commitment to restoring this imperiled resource, no absolute decisions have been taken. Unfortunately, not all participants in this process have approached the effort with an open mind. We have been told that LCT are “wimpy,” “meek,” and an “inferior species,” incapable of competing either physically or genetically. The grim specter of watershed-wide rotenone treatment has been raised ad nauseum. Perhaps most dishearteningly, the Truckee River itself has, in the headlong rush by some to prevent any attempt to bring LCT back to their native habitat, been written off as irreparably damaged goods, beyond hope and fit only, apparently, for the maintenance of a mediocre status quo. While some may argue that this is only practical, this is not the attitude that fostered countless TU restoration successes.
While cutthroat trout are, undeniably, prone to displacement by introduced salmonids, the generalizations that have been leveled at them in the recent LCT debates do the species a great injustice. Presently, there is insufficient information available to make judgments regarding the probability of success of LCT restoration to the Truckee. The process currently underway is designed to gather the necessary information. Furthermore, genetic research that is being conducted elsewhere in the West is uncovering hitherto undiscovered information about interaction between native cutthroat trout and introduced salmonids, the ability of native cutthroat to persist in spite of spatial and genetic intrusions, and the potential inherent in watershed-wide (as opposed to more narrow single species based) restoration efforts.
The fact that many thousands of LCT have been stocked into the Truckee over the years with little or no return has often been cited as “evidence” of the LCT’s lack of fitness to compete. Few conservation-minded anglers will seriously argue that misguided mass-stocking efforts aimed at Pacific salmon restoration throughout the West, for example, had any hope of long-term success. Why are the attempts made to restore Truckee River LCT any different? From TU’s perspective, the fact that thousands of LCT have been dumped into an apparent black hole speaks volumes about the shortcomings of a production-based hatchery program and the habitat, not the native fish. It also underscores the vital importance of thorough genetic research to determine which strain of LCT is best suited to life in the Truckee. Our growing understanding of LCT genetics, including the apparent preservation of part of the original array of Truckee River LCT genes, makes this goal far more attainable than many critics would care to admit.
The LCT restoration process offers everyone who loves the Truckee River an unparalleled opportunity to bring about watershed improvement. LCT restoration, in whatever form that takes, will require that many of the problems currently besetting the Truckee are vigorously examined, and solutions are found. Despite the current hue and cry, no decisions have been made regarding how LCT restoration will be achieved or what form the final product will take. As long as research is underway and viable alternatives are being debated as part of a sound, science-based inquiry into LCT restoration, TU will remain an enthusiastic supporter of this long overdue effort.