Dawne Becker, associate biologist in the Bishop office of the California Department of Fish and Game, is leading a program to introduce a "pure" strain of naturally breeding Lahontan cutthroat into the Walker River system.
Becker said the Walker Basin species evolved within the basin as the only trout present among various other "non-game" fish and aquatic organisms, and as such were accustomed to the intermittent streams, alkalinity and weather extremes present within the system.
Smith Valley alfalfa rancher Jim O'Banion has been raising and selling artificially spawned rainbow and brown trout for 37 years.
O'Banion said the cutthroat will not naturally reproduce and believes all of the native Lahontan cutthroats have been fished out. He is opposed to the recovery effort, claiming other species in By-Day Creek were poisoned years ago in an attempt to raise a pure cutthroat species.
"I don't think there is a positive strain of LCT in the state. What the federal government is trying to do is wrong. Nothing in nature is positive. When you mess around with nature, nature changes," he said.
Becker said the fish are fully capable of reproducing if conditions such as spawning gravel, water flow, temperature and maturity are met, and documentation verifies the cutthroats are reproducing at all of the restoration sites.
She said no evidence supports the assumption hatchery-spawned Lahontan cutthroat will not reproduce. Those who supported the theory probably observed fish with inadequate spawning habitat, she added.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Fishery Biologist John Branstetter supports Becker's claim, noting many of the non-native trout populations (except the cutthroats) in the West favored by many anglers are "wild" trout that originally came from hatcheries.
Referring to the Pilot Peak strain of cutthroat that has been planted in Walker Lake, Branstetter said "there is no evidence this or any other LCT strain planted in the lake are naturally reproducing, but the Walker species are genetically distinct from the Pilot Peak strain. They evolved in the basin and are therefore unique to the basin. The Pilot Peak strain, based on genetic study, is unique to the Truckee River Basin."
Branstetter said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service encourages and supports peer review of any scientific data and studies associated with a cutthroat recovery planning and implementation.
Larry Marchant, supervisor of the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery in Gardnerville, agrees and said he sees no reason why the reintroduction program would not be successful "if there is good habitat for them to spawn in."
He said Lahontan cutthroat are stream spawners and those planted in Walker Lake are not reproducing because there is no quality spawning habitat available. Weber Dam blocks access to upstream spawning sites.
According to Becker, there is no captive breeding system or hatchery set up to breed pure strain Walker cutthroats. California Fish and Game has restoration sites at Slinkered, Mill, Wolf, and Silver creeks in California. The source for the restoration populations was By-Day Creek, a small creek she says was never planted with other trout species. Slinkered Creek is the most productive site, with catch and release fishing allowed from Aug. 1. The goal is to open the other waters to anglers as soon as distributions and densities increase to where the cutthroats populations can handle the impact.
"In 1975 biologists 'discovered' pure strain LCT in By-Day creek, a remnant 'leftover' of Walker Basin LCT. Downstream diversions and a culvert under Buckeye Road prevented access to By-Day Creek from other trout species. Fish have been transferred among the different creeks to increase their distribution and densities," Becker said. "All of our restoration efforts have been focused on above barriers. With the exception of Slinkered Creek, our sites are actually upstream of where the LCT historically survived."
Other barriers include an artificial rock gabion and natural deterrents such as falls and chutes.
O'Banion claims it is virtually impossible to build a barrier to stop all non-species fish from moving upstream and co-mingling with the cutthroats.
"Unless they have a waterfall 18 feet high, they will get there. I have watched my own fish struggle around some pretty tough obstacles."
California Fish and Game does not plan to do an economic impact study and no other trout elimination projects are currently taking place or planned over the next five years within the Walker River system.
With Mono County now having a representative on the recovery implementation team, Becker said residents should be able to have their economic concerns directly addressed.
"California Fish and Game would eventually like to eliminate trout downstream of the barrier now present in Slinkered Creek, but angling use appears to be low in that section, so impact to local economies should be non-existent. Unfortunately, though, if LCT are to be restored, there will be an impact to other trout species present," Becker said. "However, California Fish and Game is currently negotiating with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to ensure that, except with regard to species, recreational fishing opportunities will not be lost or reduced.
"If recovery is successful, or even if it is not, but we obtain more LCT waters, I foresee a positive economic impact, especially if the local communities market themselves as the 'home of the Walker Basin LCT'. It is unfortunate we have to pay for the actions of our predecessors, but isn't that how it always is?"
In answer to claims the recovery program is doomed to failure, Becker says with the many variables, known and unknown, there is no guarantee recovery will occur, but if the listed threats are addressed and reduced or eliminated, with community support it could be attainable within her lifetime.
She said the California Department of Fish and Game's mission requires them to manage the state's diverse fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats and "at this point in time, with so much of the Walker Basin degraded, preserving the genetic resource of the once magnificent fish is both a scientific and an ethical quest."