Local Partners Team Up to Restore and Monitor Whittlesey Creek
BY MICHELLE WHEELER, ASHLAND FWCO
Whittlesey Creek. Credit: USFWS
Known as a spring-fed, cold water stream, Whittlesey Creek once supported a thriving coaster brook trout fishery that was thought to be “inexhaustible” according to historic accounts. However, changes in land use practices such as logging and agriculture throughout the Whittlesey Creek watershed dating as far back as the late-1800s have accelerated sedimentation, limited instream cover, widened the stream channel and filled in pools. Altogether these changes resulted in an inhospitable environment for coaster brook trout. Since the establishment of the Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in 1999, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) Ashland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (FWCO) and Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) have been working to restore coaster brook trout and the Whittlesey Creek watershed by implementing several strategies, including reintroducing known coaster brook trout strains and restoring upland, riparian, and instream habitat.
Thanks to the willingness and cooperation of many private landowners, and funding provided by partners including the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Bayfield County Land and Water Conservation Department, USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, Trout Unlimited, and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, 225 logs have been added to one mile of Whittlesey Creek during the past two years. Funding has been secured from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Sustain Our Great Lakes Program to install additional logs to another mile and a quarter of the stream during 2013 and 2014.
“Returning large wood to Whittlesey Creek not only provides cover for coaster brook trout,” says Whittlesey Creek NWR Biologist Mike Mlynarek, “it also helps narrow the channel, exposes gravel, controls bank erosion and increases pool habitat.” The Ashland FWCO, along with Mlynarek are especially interested in monitoring how the coaster brook trout population responds to these installations of large logs.
With help from the local Northland College’s Fisheries and Wildlife Techniques class led by Professor Derek Ogle, USFWS biologists have conducted fish surveys for the past three years in stretches of Whittlesey Creek where large logs have been installed. For many of these students, field work conducted during this class is the first time that they have walked in a stream in waders, the first time they have sampled fish via electrofishing, and (for some) the first time they have seen a trout. “By involving students in hands-on projects,” says Professor Ogle, “we give them valuable, meaningful experiences with employable skills and knowledge. Students are motivated and focused when working on ‘real-life’ projects.”
Michele Wheeler of the Ashland FWCO provided field crew leadership and guidance in conducting the backpack electrofishing for this year’s survey on May 13th and 14th, 2013. Together, the crew captured fish, identified species, recorded lengths, and either clipped or identified recaptured fish as part of a mark-recapture population estimate. Follow-up work in the classroom provided students with experience computing population estimates from the data collected.
The USFWS, Northland College students and coaster brook trout all benefit from this work. “Pre- and post-restoration monitoring is essential to better understanding how our conservation delivery projects are performing and help us refine our approach in strategic habitat conservation,“ says Mlynarek. “Without field assistance from Northland College faculty and students, we would not be able to collect these valuable data.”