Alvord Cutthroat

Oncorhynchus clarki alvordensis

Native Trout Fly Fishing

A fish matching the description of the Alvord cutthroat from a small stream in southern Oregon.

Introduction

The Alvord cutthroat trout is one of the two subspecies of cutthroat that have been officially declared extinct. These fish were once found in two small streams, Trout and Virgin Creek, which drain to the arid Alvord basin of Oregon and Nevada. However both of these populations fell victim to poor stocking practices and the introduction of rainbow trout. A small population of these fish was "re-discovered" in the headwaters of Virgin Creek, Nevada, but these fish were already on their way out due to another invasion by rainbow trout and too little was done too late to save them. However once again there is the question of if the Alvord is really gone or not and from the way things are looking, these trout may still swim in one small stream in southeastern Oregon.

Life History Information

Not much is known about the life history of Alvord cutthroat, as no formal studies were made before they went extinct in their native waters. From what can be inferred from data collected prior to their extinction and the habitat in which they were found, all native populations of this trout occurred as a stream resident form. Like other cutthroat Alvords are spring spawning fish and are thought to have a similar life history to stream dwelling cutthroat in the Lahontan basin. It is thought that aquatic and terrestrial insects make up the vast majority of the Alvord cutthroat's diet. The original collections of Alvord cutthroat made in Virgin Creek by Carl Hubbs in 1934 showed that the fish had an average size of 4" to 7", however some of the fish that were caught in deeper pools during the 1980's measured almost 20" long (Behnke 2002). This would be an incredible size in any stream, but this part of Virgin Creek is only three feet across in most places. The maximum lifespan of these is thought to be about seven years of age. I found the fish in the southern Oregon population to display a similar pattern with most being 6" to 8" although one extraordinary fish that I caught in 2008 measured fifteen inches.

Status

The "official" status of the Alvord cutthroat is that it is extinct in its pure form. However this may not be the actual truth with these fish, but in any case their continued existence is quite precarious. The question is how did they get into this situation? The simple answer is the rainbow trout. Although habitat degradation likely played a minor part in the demise of these fish, they proved extremely susceptible to hybridization with rainbow trout. When the Alvord cutthroat was first described by Hubbs in 1934, hybridization was already quickly spreading through Trout Creek from a 1929 stocking of rainbow trout. In 1933 rainbow trout were also stocked into Virgin Creek and within a few years pure cutthroat could no longer be found in either creek. For fifty years the Alvord cutthroat was considered to be extinct until in the 1980's when Nevada Fish and Wildlife crews turned up several cutthroat in a canyon section above a rock slide on Virgin Creek. However when a native trout hunter Robert Smith visited the creek he primarily found rainbow trout and hybrids, although he did catch their large fish that accurately matched the Alvord cutthroat description, including one that was close to 20" long and 7 years old. It is thought that the cutthroat remained isolated in this section of the creek until Alkali Reservoir which had been stocked with rainbow trout overflowed during a high water year. In 1986 several of the most pure looking Alvord cutthroat were taken from the creek to be transplant into the nearby fishless Jackson Creek. However according to Bartley and Gall (1991) genetic anaylsis of these fish showed them to be partially hybridized. No matter the genetic integrity the fish that were placed in Jackson Creek, none of them were never seen again and the Alvord cutthroat once again fell into extinction.

However this is not where the story of the Alvord cutthroat ends. In 2006 Robert Behnke made a trip into a small stream in southern Oregon, which lies outside the native range of the Alvord cutthroat to sample the trout living there. In the headwaters of the creek, he found fish that matched the description of the Alvord cutthroat among a population of Lahontan cutthroat. This creek has been stocked with both rainbow trout and Lahontan cutthroat since the late 1950's and while the rainbow trout don't appear to have survived the Lahontans have taken a hold. Even with the with these introductions some Alvords have have remained in the creek and appear to have at least maintained their phenotypical integrity. In 2008 I descided to make the trip into this small stream to see for myself and sure enough I too found several trout that matched the description of the Alvord cutthroat. I sent Behnke several photos from my trip and he provided an explanation about how these fish would have gotten into the creek:

This is similar to what I found in 2006 during an electrofishing survey of ******* Crk. Lahontan cutthroats and rainbow trout were stocked into ******* Crk. for many years beginning in 1957. Ore. historian Bruce Gilinski told me that, as a young boy, he caught trout in ****** Crk. right after WWII (ca. 1946), so trout were there before the first recorded stocking. An illustration of an Alvord cutthroat from Trout Crk. appears on p. 221 of my 2002 book, Trout and Salmon of North America, with further info on this fish on p. 224 (Artist's Note). I found many trout in ******* Crk. that strongly resembled the Alvord trout (Lahontan cutthroats are heavily spotted). Most likely scenario for a transplant of trout from Trout Crk. into ******* is found in Hubbs and Miller; 1948 publ. on fishes of the Great Basin. They mentioned that they were told that a transplant was made from Trout Crk. into the Catlow basin. The ****** basin was probably considered as part of the Catlow basin by local people but is at a higher elevation and isolated from the redband trout native to streams in the Catlow basin. Thus, if a transplant from Trout Crk. was made, it should have been into ****** Crk., which had no native trout. R. Behnke

I returned to the creek in 2009 and while I caught several Alvord cutthroat, I was disappointed to see that my catch of Lahontan cutthroat had gone up considerably. While this might have been a fluke or in part due to the fact that I also fished lower down than in 2008, it may be a very bad sign for the Alvord cutthroat. These fish have already been pushed back to the utmost headwaters of the creek and likely only number in the hundreds. As of right now I am not aware of any plans to make a transplant of these fish to another drainage to assure their existence. Due to several reliable reports on of excess in fishing pressure on this stream and fragile nature of this population I have decided not to mention its name here.

For more information on this fish and what is being done to preserve it please check out the following webpage:http://kortumofdiscovery.wordpress.com/

Description

The Alvord cutthroat is a minor subspecies of the Lahontan cutthroat, but has several traits that distinguish it from its relative. The coloration of Alvord cutthroat tends more intense than that of the Lahontan cutthroat and they are typical a brownish-olive color on the back and transitions to a yellow color on the sides of the fish. A rosy to red colored band is found along the lateral line and the same color is found on the gill plates. This coloration is especially pronounced in mature male fish. Nine to eleven bluish-purple parr marks are found along the sides of smaller Alvord cutthroat, but tend to fade away on larger fish over 10". One of the main distinguishing factors between Lahontan and Alvord cutthroat the number of spots and where they are located. While Lahontan cutthroat tend to be profusely spotted across their entire body, Alvord cutthroat tend to be sparsely spotted. Behnke (2002) states that Alvord cutthroat typically have 25-50 moderate sized spots on the sides of their body above the lateral line. The coloration of the lower fins on these fish is generally a reddish purple color.

Stream Resident Form

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Native Trout Fly Fishing
Native Trout Fly Fishing
Native Trout Fly Fishing
Native Trout Fly Fishing
 

 

Native Range

Native Trout Fly Fishing

A map of the original native range of the Alvord Cutthroat trout. Data Source: Behnke (2002) and Trotter (2008).