TU working with new data to protect Appalachia’s brookies

By Kevin Anderson

A Highland County, Va., brook trout.

If you’re a bona fide creek freak who loves to chase Appalachia’s native brookies in the waters where they belong, you’ll be glad to know that the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture—a collaborative group of agencies and organizations like Trout Unlimited committed to protecting and restoring our brookies—is planning to monitor brook trout populations along the Eastern Seaboard at a finer scale than it has before. At a November workshop in West Virginia, EBTJV members got a preview of this new approach, which identifies brook trout populations per square mile, as opposed to every 30 square miles as it has done before.

This is good news for brookies and those among us who love to fish for them. The new approach will give fisheries managers better guidance on where to concentrate protection and restoration efforts—the new data will, for example, indicate where misbehaving culverts and other fish migration barriers need to be removed or replaced in order to open up more brook trout habitat and more fishable water.

Unfortunately, there’s some bad news, too. Brook trout populations, particularly in the mid-Atlantic and southeast, are far more isolated and vulnerable than we thought when their distribution was first assessed by the Joint Venture in 2006.

And… more bad news. We will lose brook trout habitat as the climate warms, plain and simple. But there’s hope, according to a climate model put together for the Joint Venture. The model suggests that some streams—especially those with strong groundwater input, shade, and north-facing slopes—will fare better than others, simply because these factors allow for colder water.  Earlier “broad-brush” models predicted a uniform increase in stream temperatures in response to increasing air temperatures. This new model suggests that the older ones overstated the threat to brook trout posed by climate change.

This winter, TU staffers will begin using this new data to guide their work in Virginia and West Virginia as part of a new project supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund (established with a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation). TU’s classic protect-restore-reconnect recipe will be employed in five focal watersheds, with an emphasis on helping landowners improve the capacity of cold streams to stay cold in the future.  One of these watersheds surrounds Thorn Creek, a tributary to the Potomac River in Pendleton County, WV.  Learn what TU is up to there (and how good the fishing is in the Thorn Creek Wildlife Management Area) in this new video by the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Knowing that some brook trout populations may “wink out” as the climate changes is tough news to take, especially if one of them is your favorite trout haunt or the focus of your TU chapter’s conservation projects. Part of me wants to pretend that climate change isn’t a threat, and that my secret stash of brook trout streams will support fish when my grandkids take to fishing. But the conservationist in me is grateful that the Joint Venture, Wildlife Conservation Society, and others are taking a hard look at climate change, helping groups like TU prioritize where to invest increasingly scarce resources to protect the brookies that stand a chance in a warming world.

Kevin Anderson is TU’s Chesapeake Bay Land Protection Coordinator.

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