The Mountain West Tribe tries to recover a dwindling fish population

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On a warm spring day at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Reservation in northern Nevada, clouds hovered over miles of isolated desert land as mountain ranges pierced the overcast sky.

At the edge of a cliff, tribesman Susan Albright looked out over the Truckee River. Its cold, clear waters come from melting snow on the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Albright, who works for the tribe’s natural resources department, fished these waters as a child.

“We used to go to the mouth of the lake and cast treble hooks there and catch a bunch of fish and come back,” Albright said. “It’s our lifestyle. That’s what everyone ate.

Specifically, they ate Lahontan cutthroat troutNevada state fish, and cui-ui, found nowhere else in the world. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe refer to themselves as the Cui-ui Tucutta in their mother tongue, which means “the cui-ui eaters.”

Cui-ui are an endangered fish native to Pyramid Lake and the lower Truckee River in northern Nevada.

But they can’t eat that much these days. Cui-ui have been on the verge of extinction for decades, in part due to a series of dams on the Truckee River.

One of them is the Numana Dam, which Albright watched as water gushed over the 11-foot-tall structure.

“Our cui-uis can’t go upriver because they’re bottom feeding, and that’s all they can do, so they can’t go up Tahoe like they used to,” said Albright. “Since they put dams in there, they really put a damper on everything with our fish.”

The Numana dam was built in 1971 divert water from the Truckee River to the reserve for irrigation. For the past 20 years, the tribe wanted to modify the dam to help the fish recover, but they kept running into the same obstacle.

“We always knew we wanted to do this, but the funding never came,” said Donna Noel, the tribe’s director of natural resources.

This changed in April, when the Home Office announced 40 projects across the United States to support fish recovery and migration – including in Idaho, New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah. The funding comes from the huge infrastructure package that Congress passed last fall.

That of the tribe Numana Dam Fish Passage Project landed the largest grant – $8.3 million to support Lahontan’s cutthroat and cui-uis recovery.

“The tribe, it’s part of their well-being, it’s part of their heritage,” Noel said. “And so, it’s good to see that the government is taking that into consideration.”

Noel said the project includes installing screens to help fish swim downstream in the lake. A large underwater ramp will also be built for fish to swim up and over the dam.

But dams are not the only obstacle facing fish populations. The other is climate change. Cold water fish like trout and salmon are particularly vulnerable. In 2015, for example, abnormally hot water killed about 250,000 sockeye salmon in the Columbia River and its tributaries.

Dan Isaak, a fisheries research scientist with the US Forest Service, said warming waters are forcing fish to adapt. This is true for sockeye and chinook salmon that migrate from central Idaho through the Snake and Columbia rivers.

“Because peak summer temperatures in river reservoirs get so hot they can be deadly, we see fish evolving to migrate earlier and avoid those peak temperatures,” Isaak said. “Or migrate later in the fall when it starts to cool again.”

Isaak said this suggests fish species are resilient. But resilience only goes to the extent that climate change and dams reduce the number of suitable habitats.

Take Chinook Salmon in Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River. In the 1950s and 1960s, these waters supported nearly 50,000 Chinooks. Now, as a series of dams and warm waters choke the river, the average is below 1,500 fish – and falling. Three years ago, only 322 of the salmon returned to spawn.

Back in northern Nevada, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s goal is to complete the permitting process for its fish pass project by next year, with construction expected to begin in the fall of 2023.

“We looked at many ways to fix the problem,” Noel said. “So we’re really excited.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana , KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations throughout the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the public broadcasting company.

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