June 24, 2008

Brook Trout Ecology Study Under Way

By Terry Karkos

RILEY TOWNSHIP - An experiment in a far-flung corner of the Sunday River Watershed could lead to sweeping changes for Western Maine streams.

Last fall, the Androscoggin River Watershed Council, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered to try to restore habitat for native brook trout and control erosion.

The group secured a $23,000 federal grant to study brook trout ecology and conservation in headwater streams. It's part of the National Fish Habitat Action Plan to restore native brook trout habitat from Maine to Georgia.

The method being studied - dubbed "chop and drop" - involves adding large woody debris at strategic locations along a stream bank.

The debris may moderate peak flows and very low summer flows to improve stream health and create more stable conditions for trout.

Project surveyor Jeff Stern, sawyer Jay Milot of Gilead and other partnership representatives conducted a field visit on Friday morning to view the effects of last fall's work by Milot and Field Geology Services of Farmington.

Milot and others felled trees into two tributaries. A third was left alone to act as a control to measure changes that occur in the streams.

The added debris mimics conditions thought to exist before modern land-use practices like logging stripped streamside vegetation, Milot said at one test site on the eastern slope of Mount Carlo.

"Streams are always changing, so as long as you can get the mechanism back in there, the system will take care of itself," Milot said.

Depending on a stream's gradient, flow rates and other variables, chop and drop in one spot might act as a dam and trap sediment carried down from nearby eroding logging roads.

At another spot, the technique could cause bottom scouring and create deep pools favored by brook trout, MDIF&W fisheries biologist Forrest Bonney of New Sharon said.

If successful, the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture will guide ecologists in restoring backcountry waterways throughout the Mahoosuc Mountain Range that have been damaged by previous and ongoing land-use practices.

Brookies don't like shallow, wide and warm stream channels, or erosion-choked waterways, conditions that are all too apparent in the Sunday River watershed, Milot and Stern said.

At one test site on the downstream side of added debris, a deposit of gravel was forming, is ideal for trout spawning, said Stephen M. Coghlan Jr.

Coghlan is an assistant professor of the Freshwater Fisheries Ecology Department of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Maine at Orono.

He and students were helping with the project and conducting studies in test site tributaries looking at the effects of adding debris.

Their separate but related projects are funded by a two-year $100,000 grant through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

"It's the first big-funded project for the university," Coghlan said.

On Friday morning, they were electrofishing - shocking portions of the stream within two fish-blocking nets - to catch brookies, measure their growth and estimate population numbers.

The partnership will continue through 2010, funded with an additional $42,769 the ARWC recently received.

This year, recorders that monitor flow rates will be installed in each stream, because flash floods are a characteristic of damaged streams.

"I feel this project will make a big difference," Stern said. "We hope to treat the whole watershed to deal with massive erosion problems. This method will be more cost effective."

Originally published by Staff Writer.

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