Tahoe’s sensitive species | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tahoe’s sensitive species

Shane Romsos, TRPA Wildlife and Fisheries Program Manager

About 286 bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian species call the Lake Tahoe Basin home. Additionally, about 24 native and non-native fish species swim in the basin. Nearly 19 percent of fish and land vertebrates are considered sensitive, threatened or endangered by regional, state or federal agencies.

Development, unrestrained dogs, and recreational activities, such as beach-going, hiking, snowmobile and off-highway vehicle use are suspected of reducing the quality and quantity of habitat for many sensitive species in the basin. Additionally, non-native species are also suspected of impacting native sensitive species.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency established threshold standards to maintain the population viability of sensitive wildlife species and the quality of their habitat in the basin.

When reviewing development or change in land use applications, the agency analyzes whether sensitive, threatened or endangered species or their habitat will be adversely affected. The wildlife thresholds require a minimum number of population sites and disturbance zones be maintained for such species as the northern goshawk, osprey, bald eagle, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, waterfowl and deer.

The agency also works to maintain the habitat health of deciduous trees, wetlands and meadows. Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service and the California Tahoe Conservancy are required to consider and preserve habitats of species listed by California or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prior to project initiation on land they manage.

The following species are considered sensitive:

Lahontan cutthroat trout

The Lahontan cutthroat trout is extinct from Lake Tahoe, however a small population has been re-established by the Forest Service and California Department of Fish and Game in the headwaters of the Truckee River. Cutthroat can grow from 8 to 22 inches in length and can weigh anywhere from 4 ounces to more than 6 pounds. The cutthroat usually feeds on insects that drift in the water. It rarely co-exists with non-native trout species, such as rainbow, brook and lake trout. The cutthroat prefers habitat that provides cover from areas containing rocks, overhanging shrubs, logs or banks.

Forster’s tern

The forster’s tern may be hard to find during fall and winter months in Tahoe because it only visits from May through September to breed. Like the osprey, the forster’s tern has a long commute from Tahoe to Central and South America every year. Standing almost 15 inches high with a wingspan of nearly 3 feet, the forster’s tern hunts on the wing over shallow water and dives, beak first, into the water to capture its prey.

The birds eat small fish and other aquatic species. Their nests are built on floating vegetation of delicately woven grass and reeds. Forster’s terns tend to establish nests close to one another.

California spotted owl

The California spotted owl is native to the Sierra Nevada and the Lake Tahoe Basin. The nocturnal bird stands about 18 inches high with a wingspan of almost 4 feet. The spotted owl eats a variety of species but regularly eats northern flying squirrels and woodrats. Like other owls in flight, the spotted owl can’t be heard by humans, an adaptation that allows them to effectively capture unsuspecting prey. Spotted owls are associated with old-growth forest ecosystems, which are also rare in the Lake Tahoe Basin.

Northern goshawk

The Northern goshawk stands between 21 and 26 inches tall with a wingspan of 40 to 46 inches. Similar to the spotted owl, goshawks are associated with old-growth forest ecosystems. Goshawks eat a variety of birds and mammals. This species is extremely sensitive to human encroachment into their nesting territories and have attacked intruders. Chronic disruption of their nest territory by people will result in the pair failing to produce young and may result in the temporary or permanent abandonment of their territory.


Common in Tahoe, the osprey stands 22 to 25 inches in height and its wings can span 6 feet. The osprey is one of the most successful hunters in nature, capturing prey nearly 80 percent of the time. The osprey almost exclusively hunts for fish near the surface of the water. They can snap their talons shut in two-one hundreths of a second and have a rotating outer toe that can grasp objects from front or back. Osprey populations declined sharply due to the use of pesticides shortly after World War II.

Bufflehead duck

The bufflehead duck is common to rare in the basin and one of the most uncommon ducks in North America. It measures about 14 inches in length. Bufflehead ducks nest in tree cavities and rock crevices, and under boulders and shrubs. Buffleheads are almost constantly active and use an incredible amount of energy. They dive and swim to find underwater insects and crustaceans to eat. The bufflehead has lost its habitat due to recreation and development.

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