Cal Trout receives grant to protect McCloud redband trout

Tony D'Souza

The McCloud redband trout, which calls south Siskiyou County its only home in the world, is a small fish that inhabits an equally small patch of territory. All of that territory consists of a few streams in the woods to the northeast of the town of McCloud, as well as the McCloud River and its tributaries above the Middle McCloud Falls.

The fish’s isolation is due to geologic changes in the landscape over the past thousands of years that included receding glaciers and the creation of impassable waterfall barriers. Those changes separated the McCloud redband trout from other trout populations in the area, allowing it to evolve and develop its distinctive spotting and red stripe.

First documented in 1885, the McCloud redband trout in recent years has become something of a cause célèbre for scientists and local conservationists.

Though many questions remain as to its genetics and biological history, what few deny is that the McCloud redband is strikingly different in appearance from the other, more populous trout of our region.

“This is a unique trout, exceptional in its colors. It’s a beautiful little fish,” says Curtis Knight, the Mount Shasta Area Program Manager for the conservation organization California Trout, during a Monday excursion to Trout Creek, a narrow ribbon of crystalline water easy to miss off of Pilgrim Creek Road, 17 miles north of Hwy 89.

Knight, a Mount Shasta native with a Masters degree in Fisheries Biology from Utah State University, grew up fishing the McCloud River. He has an easy affinity for the McCloud redband, and salmonids in general. “Right now a lot of these guys are surviving in puddles. It’s amazing what they can tolerate. What’s remarkable about the McCloud redband and all the salmonids is their adaptability. You still have a few steelhead hanging on in LA,” Knight said with a laugh as his truck bounced over the rutted road to the Forest Service’s Trout Creek Campground. “They were back in the Mt. St. Helens area two years after the eruption. They came back after the Cantara Spill. They’ve already been documented in areas where glaciers have retreated. They’re hardy and produce a lot of offspring.”

But for all of their hardiness, salmonids have not been able to succeed when man has not made the conditions for their success possible. One of the great examples of this was what happened when the Shasta Dam was built to support agriculture and population growth in the Sacramento Valley: from four annual runs of fish numbering in the millions, the salmon count above the dam was reduced to zero.

McCloud redbands do not number in the millions. In fact, according to Knight, their small population is one of their distinctive aspects. “There are maybe two or three hundred in Sheepheaven Creek, two or three hundred in Swamp Creek, two to three hundred in Edson Creek. Sheepheaven Creek is only two miles long. These creeks emerge at springs, have short runs, and then dive back underground. They ebb and flow in dry years, wet years. Trout Creek has perhaps a couple of thousand redbands. Generally, there is a pretty good idea of the redbands’ strongholds. Trout Creek has one of the biggest populations of their area.”

Last week, Knight and California Trout received a $25,000 grant from the Mead Foundation to restore and protect the McCloud redbands. Alongside its McCloud redband project, California Trout works within an umbrella group called “Protect Our Waters Coalition,” which includes Trout Unlimited and the McCloud Watershed Council, to study and understand our region’s springs and groundwater, and influence management policies with an eye toward sustainability. The group has met with Nestle concerning the environmental impact of the proposed bottling plant in McCloud, among other projects.

But on this trip, Knight’s focus was the McCloud redband, and at a narrow bend of the Trout Creek, a few of the diminutive fish boiled the water as they rose to feed on insects, then darted to the safety of an overhanging mat of grass as his dog, Lefty, splashed into the water. As he toured the creek side, Knight pointed out how the environment had been degraded to the detriment of the McCloud redband, and the greater ecosystem in general.

“The banks here are not supposed to be this steep,” he said. “You don’t want six feet of drop. A lot of this happened because of sheep grazing 100 years ago. Sheep take out the vegetation, winter comes and the high flows rip everything out. The high banks are formed, which channel the water, and that results in even greater degradation. What is supposed to happen is that in times of heavy flows, the water should rise up and flood the meadows. Now the meadows are dry and the conifers have moved in. With healthy meadows you have aspens, and habitat for sandhill cranes, elk, deer. We focus on the stream, but it’s about restoring the whole ecosystem.”

While some of California Trout’s restoration work involves tearing up the degraded creek banks with backhoes, much consists of what Knight calls, ‘Process-based restoration.’ “Basically you let the creek sort it out as best it can. You remove whatever is hurting it and let it recover with time.”

Not everyone is as supportive of McCloud redband preservation efforts as Knight is. Some fear that if the McCloud redband is registered on the Endangered Species List, it will become as contentious an issue as the spotted owl, and local economic activity will suffer.

Following a 2007 article on the subject in the Redding Record-Searchlight, comments posted on the paper’s website included angry rejections that the McCloud redband needs any conservation effort at all.

“So some environmentalist has figured out a way to make a living and trust me make a lot of people miserable in the process,” wrote one poster, and another offered, “Get a life!…That little fish is already costing the taxpayers millions of dollars in environmental mitigation.”

But Knight rejects those sentiments. “The timber companies have been really helpful. They have helped with culvert restoration and have provided in-kind labor and materials. They know that it’s in their interest to keep the redband off the Endangered Species list. They have been very receptive to the work we are doing.”

As he walked back to his truck at the end of the visit to Trout Creek, Knight paused for a moment to crouch and point out redband fry swimming in a shallow eddy. “You know when I was a kid, the first thing you want to do is get out of here. Later you think that place you wanted to get out of is a really pretty place. Fish are one of the best indicators of the health of the watershed. Trout especially. They’re the most sensitive.”

For more information on the McCloud redband trout, contact California Trout at 530-926-3755.