In New York, cooperative project benefits Wylie’s brook trout
Coventry, N.Y. — For us, it’s as simple as driving over them; zipping along at 55 mph, we don’t even notice. But if you’re a brook trout, it’s an impassable barrier – the end of the road. And it doesn’t matter that miles of prime spawning and nursery habitat is on the other side.
Thanks, however, to a cooperative effort among several local, state and federal agencies, native brookies can now reach that habitat in Chenango County’s Wylie Brook watershed, and biologists expect them to thrive in the coming years.
Four recent fish passage projects on Wylie Brook tributaries have opened up close to two miles of stream to the New York state fish, and it was as easy as replacing a few road culverts. Not that it was really that simple. A coalition of partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Chenango County Highway Department, the town of Coventry and two private landowners all came together with time, funding and access to make the project a success.
“It takes a village to raise a brook trout,” said Gian Dodici, a fish and wildlife biologist with the USFWS’s field office in Cortland. “No one agency or group could get this done. We couldn’t do it without the DEC; DEC couldn’t do it without the town, and it goes on down.”
“It” is the replacement of four “perching” culverts along tributaries to Wylie Brook, a Class C watershed with 47.5 miles of main stream and tributaries, the majority of which flow through Chenango County.
The streams are in the Upper Susquehanna River drainage, a priority for the USFWS, and through another alliance, the Upper Susquehanna Conservation Alliance, Wylie was chosen for several projects that would reconnect the brook trout with their habitat upstream.
The first phase involved replacement of a culvert (purchased with Alliance funds and installed by the town of Coventry). This year, three additional projects were identified by DEC personnel.
“We identified brook trout downstream of the culverts, but there were problems in that they were one-way streets – the fish couldn’t get back (upstream),” said Dave Lemon, DEC’s Region 7 fisheries manager. “We were looking to reconnect the isolated populations. If catastrophic drought or flood, or something that happens in that system that wipes the fish out, there’s no way for that area to be repopulated.”
Perching culverts are common throughout the state. When roads cross streams, the fish and aquatic life are many times an afterthought of towns and counties under time and monetary constraints. Many of the culverts are undersized and, in the case of hillside highways, drops of two, three and even five feet are not uncommon.
The problem for the brook trout – or any other fish in the stream – is that they can’t make that jump.
“Brook trout can jump about a foot, so what we did in one section was build a series of steps,” said Lemon of one culvert that was perched five feet above the downstream bed. “We needed six structures, each dropping about a foot, with a certain space in between them.”
Stream construction work continued about 150 feet downstream to achieve the goal – all on private land. “Almost all of this was done with the cooperation of private landowners,” Lemon said.
And once the construction was finished, members of the Al Hazzard Chapter of Trout Unlimited spent some time planting willows along the streambank for stabilization and, eventually, cover.
The unnamed Wylie Brook tributaries, crossed by both county and town roads, are not “top of the list” when it comes to fishing hotspots. In fact, says Lemon, they’re not places he would send an angler looking to fish.
“These streams are really more about really good spawning and nursery habitat,” he said. “Wylie Brook itself is more fishable, but currently there is no formal public access. One section we did this year was on state forest land. Ultimately, I would like to see improved formal public access there.”
For Dodici, this was an “ecological restoration project,” aimed at brining back prime brook trout habitat.
“What’s unique about this Wylie Brook drainage is that it’s almost exclusively native brook trout,” he said of the stream that’s only been stocked a handful of times since 1934, and then only with brook trout. The last – and final – stocking came in 1989.
“Most of the trout fisheries in that neck of the woods, there’s often a mix of brook and brown trout. At this point it’s an ecological benefit of reconnecting the watershed to all of its tribs and providing that nursery and spawning habitat, so if we ever realize the goal of the fishery in Wylie Brook itself, the ecology will be there to support that fishery,” he said.
Dodici estimates the cost of this year’s project at about $125,000, a large part of which came via in-kind services. DEC provided site identification, consulting, coordination and fish sampling work; USFWS contributed engineering, design and construction oversite, as well as $57,000 through its National Fish Passage Program for construction. The town of Coventry kicked in $10,000 for material and in-kind services.