Middle River Dispatches is a gumbo of posts about fly-fishing, conservation, politics and days afield.

Learning from the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture

As a fisherman and hunter I have learned to appreciate the interconnectivity of the natural world.

Like many, I have come to see the wisdom in the quote often attributed to John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

By the way, what he really said was, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

But the point remains.

One of the prime examples of this interconnectivity is the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture.

The Joint Venture began in 2002 when a small group of us got together to see if we could take advantage of the emerging interest in fish habitat conservation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Service had launched the National Fish Habitat Initiative and a few of us were interested in seeing if there might be some common interest to do something for the Brook Trout habitat.

The original group of fish heads included the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ Larry Mohn and Steve Reeser, Hannibal Bolton from the USFWS, Dave Cross from the U.S. Forest Service, Steve Moyer from Trout Unlimited and Gordon Robertson from the American Sportfishing Association.

We all felt that the National Fish Habitat Initiative, later known as the National Fish Habitat Action Plan, was a good idea. Using regional partnerships modeled after the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, joint ventures made good sense to us.

What we worried about was the spectra of “process” getting in the way of progress. The folks managing the Action Plan wanted to build a program first. We wanted to put our time, money and energy into “on the ground” projects.

Over the next few months we reached out to the fish and game departments in the 17 states that encompassed the Eastern Brook Trout’s native range from Maine to Georgia.

Most of the states contacted agreed with our enthusiasm for protecting, restoring and enhancing Brook Trout habitat. Many agreed to participate in an initial planning meeting the following year.

At that meeting the participants formed a steering committee (I currently serve as the vice-chair) to manage the effort. The participating organizations then divided the work among five working committees; Conservation Strategy, Data, Outreach and Education, Science and Research and Grants and Development.

Over the next two years the EBTJV did a range-wide assessment of Brook Trout populations and threats to Brook Trout and Brook Trout habitat in the Eastern United States.

Each state drafted conservation strategies to improve water quality and restore Brook Trout habitat and populations using local, incentive-based, non-regulatory programs.

“Once the partnership recognized the threats facing Brook Trout within its historic eastern range, we developed regional and range-wide strategies to take swift and deliberate steps to conserve strong populations and restore weaker ones,” said Steve Perry, Inland Fisheries Division Chief for the NH Fish and Game Department and Chair of the Joint Venture. “We created a model for fish conservation — a large-scale habitat-focused conservation strategy for a species at risk. This strategy provides us with a roadmap to significantly improve Brook Trout populations by 2025.”

Last year, the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture was recognized as one of the first partnerships under the National Fish Habitat Action Plan. The list of partners supporting the joint venture now includes fish and wildlife agencies from all 17 states, federal agencies, conservation organizations and academic institutions.

Brook Trout are state fish. They are the only trout native to the streams and rivers of the eastern United States.

Once abundant throughout their historical range, Brook Trout populations are declining as land use changes alter their habitat. “Brookies” need cold, clean water to survive. They also serve as excellent indicators of the health of the watersheds they inhabit.

Virginia has received funding for two projects, both of them here in the Shenandoah Valley, one on the North River and another on Smith Creek.

The North River Brook Trout Habitat Restoration project was one of the first to receive funds set aside by the USFWS for the EBTJV.

The North River project is restoring the original stream contour to a five-mile section above the Elkhorn Dam. VDGIF is working with the U.S. Forest Service to restore this historic Brook Trout habitat.

Larry Mohn at VDGIF told me that the project has tremendous potential for Brook Trout restoration. He also said because of the size of project it would take a while to get it completed.

Mohn is a pretty laid-back guy but he was visibly excited about the potential to restore this low in-stream flow habitat for Brook Trout.

The Smith Creek project is in Rockingham County. Working cooperatively with ten diverse partners, the project is helping restore riparian habitat at the headwaters of Smith Creek.

This project connects to Mountain Run in the George Washington National Forest as well, providing additional spawning habitat for those Brook Trout.

The connection the EBTJV has to our everyday life is not hard to see. Clean water is important in so many ways here in the Valley, in Virginia and across the country.

As part of the EBTJV we all benefit from the work to protect our watersheds and aquatic habitat. Whether you fish or not, when we tug at a single thing in nature, we indeed find it attached to the rest of the world.

You can read more of my columns in the News Virginian here.

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