After years of deliberation, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has made a historic decision to transfer over 40 acres of the iconic Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery in Inyo County to the Fort Independence Indian Community. The Fort Independence Indian Community is recognized as a distinct tribal government among the four Owens Valley Paiute Tribes. The Wildlife Conservation Board gave the green light to this no-cost transfer last week, with the transaction set to be finalized in early 2024. This marks the first-ever land return by CDFW to a California Tribe.
“This act is momentous and aligns with many ambitions laid out for California by this Administration,” stated CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham. “It honors Governor Newsom’s Executive Order encouraging the transfer of excess lands to California Native American tribes and is a Nature-Based Solution that contributes to the goals of 30×30. I am proud to be a part of this transfer.”
The Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery comprises historic structures, residences, and other buildings, covering around 19 acres. The remaining 21+ acres are home to native plant vegetation, including shrubland, oak, and willow riparian habitat along Oak Creek. The property is known to provide habitat for the willow flycatcher, a special-status species.
“Water is an integral part of Paiute culture, history, and social structure,” said Tribal Chairman Carl Dahlberg. “Our Indigenous Paiute members settled on the banks of Oak Creek since time immemorial, and these lands have always been sacred to our people. Our worldview values the delicate ecosystem that connects us to this land, which traditionally was a cultivation site for indigenous plants, such as taboose and nahavita. This property is inextricably intertwined with who we are as Paiute people, and we hope to bring this knowledge and history back to the community through the preservation of the Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery.”
The Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery has been under CDFW ownership since 1916 and was historically used to produce various trout species for planting until whirling disease was discovered there in 1984. Despite the disease not affecting eggs, trout egg production continued until 2007. In July 2008, severe flood and mudslide damage led to a temporary closure to the public. An interpretive center operated by the Friends of Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery remains open. The Fort Independence Indian Community pledges to protect wildlife habitats, native plants, and open access to the property for all.