Fort McCoy News November 14, 2014

Collaborative effort improves fish habitat

STORY & PHOTOS BY SCOTT T. STURKOL
Public Affairs Staff

Combined efforts of federal, state and local agencies have improved stream conditions and fish habitat on Fort McCoy.

In 2013, work was completed on several barrier removal and stream improvement projects along Ash Run and Tarr Creek in the Fort McCoy cantonment area, said Fort McCoy Fisheries Biologist John Noble of the Directorate of Public Works Natural Resources Branch (NRB). This year, work has been done along Squaw Creek near Pine View Campground and along Stillwell Creek on South Post.

Photo for creek improvement article
An excavator operator from a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources crew reworks an embankment at Stillwell Creek on Fort McCoy's South Post.

All the stream habitat work is done through cooperation between the NRB, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR).

"We also partnered with the Habelman Brothers Cranberry Marsh and relied on several other federal and local agencies in the project planning and development phases," Noble said.

Stream biological monitoring, otherwise known as "biomonitoring," has been used to help determine where work needs to be done, Noble said.

Biomonitoring, defined as the use of a biological community to provide information on the quality or health of an ecosystem, can be used to assess the water quality in streams, lakes, ponds, reservoirs, estuaries and oceans. Macroinvertebrates, fish and algae are all widely used in biomonitoring.

"We've been conducting biomonitoring assessments using the fish community as an indicator of water quality since the mid-1990s on many of our streams," Noble said. "For example, in the biomonitoring process along Stillwell Creek where stream habitat work has been done, we found there were very few fish and typically no trout."

Biomonitoring analysis at Stillwell found only minimal fish numbers that included warm-water species, and tolerant species, such as the Central Mudminnow, Noble said. Fish habitat was limited otherwise because of inconsistent water flows as well as from sedimentation primarily due to stream bank erosion.

The Stillwell Creek section and Squaw Creek below the Squaw Lake dam previously was placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 303d Impaired Waters list in 2002. This listing helped build a cooperative of agencies at different levels.

"The EPA helped us develop plans to make improvements to the dam at Squaw Lake and Stillwell Creek," Noble said. "In this process we developed a good working relationship and an opportunity to make water resource improvements with the Habelmans.

Without their proactive efforts to improve water quality and improved water discharged to Stillwell Creek, our confidence to proceed with this stream restoration may not have been realized."

Noble added smaller-scaled stream improvements using brush bundles were completed in Stillwell Creek in the past — primarily with Colorado State University staff, members of the Fox Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and students from Black River Falls High School.

"The earlier projects from 2006, 2008 and 2011 improved instream cover and stream depth to the point where we found intolerant (to warm water), coldwater species sufficient for us to move forward with this larger-scaled stream habitat project with the FWS and WDNR," Noble said. "Consequently, with assistance in water management from Habelmans and the culmination of stream habitat work, we are expecting the distribution of coldwater species like brook and brown trout to be extended."

The "boots-on-ground" crews doing work in the stream areas were from the WDNR, Noble said. They used earth-moving equipment to improve stream banks, place rocks to fortify stream beds, and put in logs for log jams and weirs to provide cover for fish in moving water.

"Their work helps stabilize stream banks and reduce erosion while providing in-stream cover that was otherwise limited," Noble said.

Mike Simplot, a WDNR equipment operator who has worked Fort McCoy stream-improvement projects, said he was glad to be a part of the process.

"I like working (at Fort McCoy)," Simplot said. "There are nice streams there and it's a nice area to work. It's nice to see the cooperation going on too. The more people who are involved, the more you can get done."

USFWS Fisheries Biologist Louise Mauldin said the improvements will help grow trout numbers in all the streams.

"This was a great opportunity to work with Fort McCoy and WDNR to improve habitat and restore connectivity throughout the stream for brook trout," Mauldin said.

The USFWS contributed National Fish Passage funds to help remove several barriers, Mauldin added.

"This improved upstream and downstream movement to needed seasonal habitats," Mauldin said. "Habitat fragmentation is a major contributor to declines in fish populations and should be addressed in overall stream restoration efforts as was demonstrated at Tarr Creek (in 2013)."

As the improvements have been made, Noble said nature takes over as brook trout and other fish species find more places to call home. "As time goes on, we expect more fish to move in and colonize these areas," he said.

The improvements may also improve opportunities for those people who enjoy trout fishing.

"There are a lot of people who like to come here for (trout) fishing," Noble said. "There's not a lot of competition, most waters they can fish effectively with worms, spinners or flies, and most all our streams have a lot of naturally reproducing fish, including brook trout."

Removal of barriers also improved fish movement and helped reduce flooding at some of the stream areas, Noble said.
Stream improvements will continue to be made as needed.

"Sometimes there are old structures (dam or culvert) in streams that go bad, no longer serving their intended purpose, and they need to be removed when no longer needed," Noble said. "It's a process we are always looking at to improve our waterways."

For more information about fishing and stream improvements at Fort McCoy, call Noble at 608-388-5796.