FRANKLIN — Standing at the edge of the stream, Dustin Wichterman watched intently as his trout fly drifted through a pool that didn’t exist a year ago.
“There!” His rod bent into a deep arc as a 15-inch trout tugged hard at the business end of the line. In the span of just a few minutes, Wichterman hooked two trout and missed three or four others.
“We built this pool just last year,” he said afterward. “Almost immediately, the trout started moving into it.”
Wichterman is one of the point men for a public-private effort to improve trout habitat by narrowing and deepening flood-scoured streams and creating streamside shade. Called “Partners for Fish & Wildlife,” the program is administered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with cooperation from Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Much of the effort’s current work is concentrated in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands, and particularly on the Potomac River’s headwaters in Pendleton County. Floods in 1985 and 1996 damaged many of the watershed’s trout streams, and the government-funded streambed channelization that followed the flooding stripped away most of the good habitat that remained.
As a result, native brook-trout populations became isolated into only the smallest of tributaries, and mostly in the portions of those waters that flowed through the Monongahela National Forest.
In the mid-1990s, the Fish and Wildlife Service started trying to repair damaged streams that flowed through private lands outside the national forest. They hired contractors to widen the streams’ “riparian zones,” the margins between the creeks and the surrounding farmlands.
The contractors erected high-tension fencing to keep cattle out of the streams and planted water-loving trees and plants along the banks. The idea, long-term, was to have the vegetation trap silt during high-water events, gradually narrowing and deepening the streams’ channels.
Wichterman, Trout Unlimited’s Potomac Program Manager, said workers have installed more than 30 miles’ worth of fencing, have created more than 300 acres of riparian-zone habitat, and have created channel-narrowing, pool-creating, trout-holding structures in more than nine miles’ worth of streams.
“And we have at least that much more work currently under contract,” he added. “We’re going full-bore right now.”
There’s enough work to keep a crew of about 30 workers going full-time. The work crews are Trout Unlimited employees, and they use equipment owned and maintained by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“They sign up as Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers, and that allows them to operate our equipment,” said John Schmidt, project leader for the agency’s West Virginia Field Office. “The crew builds the fence and does the in-stream habitat work using heavy equipment. The machines, fuel and tools are all owned by the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Funding for the program comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and from state agencies.
“We also get grants from non-profit organizations such as Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation,” Schmidt added. “All that money goes into a great big pot that we manage, and our job as managers is to cover the costs of the labor and materials.”
Farmers and landowners who participate in the program must contribute to the effort, either through in-kind work or monetary contributions.
“We ask them to do site prep for the building of the fences. If the area needs to be mowed or brush-hogged, or in rare cases bulldozed, we ask them to do it,” Schmidt said. “Depending on circumstances, they may have some financial skin in the game, too.”
On average, he added, the landowners’ contributions amount to about one-fourth of each project’s cost.
Farmers like the program because the fencing allows them to divide their property into units. By shifting their cattle from one unit to the other, they can avoid overgrazing and ensure that their animals are eating fresh green growth.
“It helps their operation to become more profitable, and they like that,” Schmidt explained. “They’re responsible for only a fraction of the cost, and we handle all the paperwork.”
Some landowners, he said, have signed up for multiple projects.
“They’ll have us work on one section of stream, then, as they can afford it, they have us come back for a second, third or fourth time,” he said.
The end result is that more and more of the Potomac’s headwaters are now able to support year-round populations of trout.
“That wasn’t always the case,” Schmidt said. “In the past, when there were droughts, the water in some of these creeks got too warm and shallow to support trout. Trout in the lower parts of the streams were unable to migrate to the headwaters, and vice versa. The work we’re doing connects the lower ends with the upper ends, which results in better genetic diversity [in the trout population].”
Trout Unlimited’s Wichterman said the initiative’s biological benefits are already showing up.
“We’re seeing a decrease in water temperatures and an increase in the number of trout,” he said. “Not only are we expanding trout populations, we’re strengthening them genetically as well.”