Bonneville Cutthroat: The Sacred Red Fish

By Randy Brudnicki

Shoshone and Goshute tribal elders call it Ainkai Painkwi: "Red Fish."

The American Indian elders lamented that this species "once filled the waters" of every little stream found along the western slope of Utah’s Deep Creek Mountains. And for about 50 years, biologists were unable to document whether the red fish ever existed, until recent research and efforts proved otherwise.

The Goshutes’ beloved Deep Creek Mountains straddle the Utah/Nevada border in southwest Tooele County, beginning near the historic Pony Express trail south of Wendover. The range continues south toward Mount Mariah and Great Basin National Park’s Mount Wheeler. For most of the travelers approaching Wendover along Interstate 80, the Deep Creek Mountains look like a stark, featureless aberration of the flat, salt-desert horizon. Up close, the Deep Creek Mountains appear as the imposing, lush mountain range they are. The green and fertile western slope of the range is home to the Ibapah Goshutes, a sister tribe in the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation. The other Goshute band resides in Skull Valley.

Because the Ibapah Goshutes place tremendous value in the stewardship of their beautiful mountains, they approached the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a few years ago about starting wildlife and land-use conservation programs within the tribal boundaries. In a roundabout way, the tribe’s request would be the crucial part of a series of events that would lead to the return of the "Red Fish" to the reservation.

But this story starts in the early 1970s when wildlife biologists from many of the major wildlife agencies, including the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, U. S. Forest Service, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management were on a quest to document every plant and wildlife species in Utah, in conjunction with passage of the Endangered Species Act. One species of fish that biologists discovered was a remnant population of Bonneville cutthroat trout in the headwaters of Birch Creek. That was in 1974. They later discovered another population in Trout Creek. Both remote streams lie on the eastern summit of the Deep Creek Mountains.

When the Bonneville cutthroat trout population was discovered, the species appeared to have been extinct for 40 years. Biologists were able to identify the species through reports and records written by naturalists in the mid to late 1800s. For example, one of the records cataloguing Bonneville cutthroats was recorded in 1848 from samples of trout caught in the Bear River and Cache valleys.

Another description written in 1859 described large cutthroat trout in Utah Lake and still another record from 1874 catalogued a cutthroat taken from a small stream on the eastern slope of the Deep Creek Mountains. The 1874 sampling was captured near where the stream disappeared into the dry, salty sands of Utah’s west desert. In the 1800s, naturalists thought each of these cutthroats was a different species because of their diverse habitat and sizes. However, as biological identification techniques improved, biologists were able to identify each of these samples as the same species: the Bonneville cutthroat trout.

In the alkaline waters of much of the Bonneville cutthroat’s range, the fish exhibited a silvery hue with a small orange slash under its throat and "speckled" spots on its body. It was not red like the fish described by the Goshute elders. Although another native Utah cutthroat species, the Colorado River cutthroat, develops a deep red color during the spawning season, biologists ruled out the Colorado River cutthroat as the species referred to by the Goshutes because the Colorado River species is native to watersheds several hundred miles to the east, in watersheds not connected to the ancient 19,750-square-mile Lake Bonneville.

Even though Bonneville cutthroats were thought to be extinct, much was known about their historic range and the role the trout played in settling Utah. The Bonneville cutthroat flourished from southeastern Idaho to Cedar City and from the Wasatch Front to eastern Nevada. Cutthroat trout were plentiful when settlers came to Utah. The trout thrived in all of the major tributaries of the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake like the Logan, Weber, Jordan and Provo rivers. Bonneville cutthroats were also found in the Sevier and Beaver river watersheds, as well as the Panguitch lakes. The Bonneville cutthroat readily adapted to the diverse annual climate of the Great Basin where it was cold in winter and hot in summer; and where stream flows fluctuated from flooding in spring to dewatering in fall.

Bonneville cutthroats served as a major food source for American Indians and later for Mormon pioneers and other early inhabitants. Don Duff, a forest service biologist and member of the group who discovered Bonneville cutthroats in Birch Creek, relates the significance of the trout in Utah.

"After the pioneers came into the Great Salt Lake Valley, they subsisted on native Bonneville cutthroats which grew up to 40 pounds in Utah Lake. This was during the 1850s when the pioneers were hard pressed for food. So both the Bonneville cutthroat and the California seagull played an important role in the preservation and subsistence of the Mormon pioneers in the settlement of this state."

The cutthroat trout grew so big and plentiful in Utah Lake that commercial fishing ventures were built along the lakeshore to supply fish to the booming mining and railroad camps. An 1864 historical account states that in one haul of a commercial net, between 3,500 and 3,700 pounds of cutthroats were caught.

Not only was the Bonneville cutthroat an important dietary resource for pioneers, it was fun to catch. In 1859, naturalist George Suckley raved about the Bonneville cutthroat’s "sport to the fly fisher, and a delicacy to the epicure." (Because the Bonneville cutthroat trout played such an important role in Utah’s history, the 1997 state legislature named it Utah’s state fish, bumping the old state fish, the rainbow trout, a species that was imported from California in 1883.)

Sadly, no matter how plentiful the cutthroat supply once seemed, by 1930 only one Bonneville cutthroat was caught in Utah Lake during the entire fishing season. Meanwhile, introduced trout species such as rainbows, German browns and eastern brook trout filled the void left by the Bonneville cutthroat. Unfortunately, many of Utah’s recreational anglers failed to recognize the disappearing Bonneville cutthroat. By the time the fishing public took interest in preserving native species, the Bonneville cutthroats were all but extinct. Fortunately, the species still survived.

With the 1974 discovery of the Bonneville cutthroats in Birch Creek, biologists were unsure of the best way to manage the species. While some people advocated listing the species on the Endangered Species List, others disagreed. When a species is "listed," the management of the species becomes the domain of the federal government. However, if a species can be brought back to sustainable population levels before being listed, the species’ management remains with the local wildlife authority, in this instance, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Local control is usually better because it is less expensive and there are more management options, as was the case with the Bonneville cutthroat trout.

To protect the species, the state agency closed Birch Creek and Trout Creek to fishing. With the protection the species received, the populations rebounded. As the protected trout reached Birch and Trout creeks’ carrying capacities of about 1,000 fish per mile, surplus trout were transplanted to other streams on the eastern slopes of the Deep Creek Mountains.

DWR fisheries managers also increased the trout’s survivability and growth by creating cooperative strategies with private landowners and federal agencies. One of these private landowners is Buck Douglass, a Trout Unlimited member, fishing enthusiast, and throwback to the old west. Buck embodies the spirit of the west implied in his name. (It would be uncharacteristic to call him anything but "Buck.")

Buck volunteered to build three trout-rearing ponds on his Deep Creek Mountain Ranch for the DWR to use to improve the spawning success, growth and survivability of Bonneville cutthroat trout. Drawing on his profession as a contractor and the agency’s expertise in designing trout hatcheries, Buck built ponds featuring gravel raceways that served as efficient spawning channels. The ponds and raceways were tremendously successful and would serve as the model for future construction projects. Buck would also play an important role in returning the "Red Fish" to its native range on the Goshute Reservation.

It is fitting that Buck would play an integral part in the Goshutes’ conservation efforts. He grew up in Emigration Canyon and, as a youngster, fished for trout in Emigration, Red Butte and Parleys canyons. His father worked for the University of Utah and was assigned to a project at Dugway Proving Grounds. The family moved to a home on the eastern slopes of the Deep Creek Mountains where Buck attended high school and became friends with many members of the Goshute tribe. Although white, Buck learned many of the Goshute ways. Many of his boyhood friends are now the leaders of the Goshute Tribe. One friend is Milton Hooper, the Goshute Tribal business chairman. Hooper affectionately calls Buck the "blue-eyed Indian."

Several years ago Hooper, then chairman of the Goshutes’ Natural Resources Committee (a position now held by Buck), talked to the USFWS about ways the 120-member tribe could enhance the natural resources within its 160,000-acre stewardship. A memorandum of understanding created a partnership between federal and state agencies and the Goshutes to establish self-sustaining populations of Bonneville cutthroat trout in tribal waters.

Tribe-reared trout would not only replenish the reservation’s streams, but they could also be used to restock public-access streams. The program would follow the example of Buck’s Deep Creek Mountain Ranch by building ponds and gravel spawning channels.

Biologists knew from experience that ponds would offer the trout a chance to grow to a larger size than streams alone (remember the historical size of the cutthroats in Utah Lake?). An adult cutthroat in a high mountain stream grows to 9 or 10 inches long and produces 150 to 200 eggs. A pond-reared fish reaches 16 to 18 inches and produces several thousand eggs.

The Goshutes preserved 5,000 acres for stream rehabilitation and pond construction. A sacred spring creek they called "Fish Springs" or Painkwi Pah acts as the main brood water for the cutthroats. Hooper said that the sacred creek, located adjacent to an ancient burial ground, "served as the cultural meeting place for the tribe and was a popular bathing, fishing and ceremonial destination for Shoshones for hundred of years because the water springs from a granite rock rather than from run-off-initiated creeks. Shoshones came here every spring to bathe and be blessed in their harvests of nuts and berries for the new season."

The spring creek makes a valuable brood area because the water temperature varies very little year-round. It ranges from 42 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to the upper 50s in summer. A four-mile stretch of the watercress-filled, willow-lined, pure-water spring was treated with rotenone to remove all of the nonnative fish species. The spring creek flows through the tribal boundaries and into Nevada where a natural barrier or falls was restored to prevent browns and rainbows from moving back upstream to contaminate the pure-strain cutthroats.

Larry Zeigenfuss, an ecologist with the USFWS, said, "Prior to treating the spring, our population surveys showed the spring was capable of being very productive, producing as many as 2,000 fish per mile. There is no reason for the stream not to reach that capacity again." Not bad for a stream one can hop across in many places without getting wet.

Buck was asked to build the pond and spawning channels on Fish Springs. "I knew the area is sacred to the Goshutes," he said, "but, when I arrived with my bulldozer, and before I could even unhook the trailer, one of the tribal members told me to ask permission to dig from the medicine woman who was buried near where we were to build the pond. I kept unhooking the trailer. ÔNow,’ the tribal member said. So I walked in the direction I was shown until I found the gravesite. After I asked the medicine woman’s permission, I knew that this was going to be a spiritual project. And I felt the spirits every day I was here."

When the pond and raceway construction and chemical treatment of the creek were completed in 1997, biologists brought 114 adult cutthroats from Trout Creek to place in the springs and the new pond. The following May, biologists returned to Fish Springs to gather eggs from the soon-to-be-spawning trout. To everyone’s amazement, the silvery hued, "speckled" Bonneville cutthroats had turned a deep red spawning color. The sacred Red Fish, Ainkai Painkwi of the Goshutes’ had returned to its native waters and its native peoples.

Biologists attribute the deep red spawning color of the Bonneville cutthroat trout to the chemical and geological make up of the streams on the reservation. Hooper, speaking on behalf of the conservation-minded Ibapah Goshutes, said, "The tribe feels blessed to be working with this native species and preserving a piece of our cultural heritage." However, not only is the Bonneville cutthroat a part of the Goshute’s history, it is a part of Utah’s history as well.

Fisheries managers hold high expectations for future sport fishing opportunities of the Bonneville cutthroat trout because the species evolved and thrived in the Bonneville basin’s fluctuating environment of cold, high water flows in the spring to extremely warm, low flows in the late summer. By 1999, the population of Bonneville cutthroats in the Deep Creek Mountains had rebounded to the point where a limited sportfishing harvest could be permitted. A four-fish limit on the once-closed streams prevents over harvest.

The re-establishment of the Bonneville cutthroat trout proves that there is historical, sentimental and cultural value in preserving threatened and endangered species. We are the stewards of the land; we can and will make a difference.