Years of habitat restoration bring trout population back up in Batten Kill


ARLINGTON — Flowing from southeastern Vermont into Easton, N.Y. and the Hudson River, the Batten Kill River is known by many, particularly for fishing, canoeing and tubing. In order to maintain the attraction, work is being done to protect embankments around pools and existing trout population.

For about 10 days, trees, root wads and large rocks have been piled along the river behind the West Arlington cemetery to avoid erosion, as well as further down near a pool to create convoys, chambers and feeding stations for trout.

The project came about after various studies done by environmental service groups and Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department fisheries biologist Ken Cox. The department was monitoring the trout populations in the 1980s and '90s. Cox explained that fish 1 and 2 years old weren't lasting through the winter due to the lack of coverage. It also came to his attention that anglers weren't catching as much so the satisfactory rate was low.

In the early 2000s a technical committee was established to figure out factors of decline. Results showed that there wasn't enough natural coverage areas for trout to escape from predators and for a place to eat. At the time there was a no harvest regulation which allowed for larger trout to produce larger eggs and ultimately give birth to fish with a longer life span, Cox said.

In the pool areas, there has been a 500 percent increase in trout population in the past five years according to Cox's regular supervision and data analysis.

"We won't be able to keep doing it forever, but it's kind of a jump start for the cover and shelter. The structure we put in will improve the river dynamics, they collect other debris. We're hoping it's an investment in the productivity of the fishery," State Representative and the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance Executive Director Cynthia Browning said.

Once a landowner gave permission to the project is when funds were provided from the Green Mountain National Forest and a schedule of work was established at different parts of the river. For this project in particular, the landowner had cleared some land and had trees to be used. Browning said getting the materials to the site is the most expensive part, so it was a win-win situation.

"It turns out that wood in the river is really important. It collects other debris and insects live in that and eat that and of course the trout eats the insects," Browning said. "There haven't been enough big trees in the bank falling in. We want trees on all the banks to grow big and fall in. We're trying to create as much improved habitat as we can."

Even wood structures that were placed before Tropical Storm Irene have sustained, so Cox said he's not worried about the habitat being disrupted. For the most part, people who canoe and kayak had been moving wood out of the way, but the workers kept them in mind during this project so that nothing would be an obstruction.

Browning said Irene actually helped bring a pulse of wood to build up on what structures they already brought there.

"A lot of what we're looking for is mostly being opportunistic. Wherever we see potential for improvements to habitat, especially where you have deep water with no cover complexity to it, that's where we try to add some additional windows. The fish prefer the deeper pools and adding the wood allows for deeper complexity," said Scott Wixsom, fish and wildlife technician with the Green Mountain National Forest who led the project.

He supervised a worker in an excavator on Wednesday who was pushing a root wad into a wooden barrier made out of trees and branches to secure it along the bank.

The structures will last about 15 to 20 years Wixsom said.

"We're trying to jump start those natural processes you would find in a healthy ecosystem," he added. "The key is having healthy functioning areas that would recruit future wood and provide shade to the streams, filter runoff. What it comes down to is having willing landowners understanding the importance of that."

Browning is in charge of contacting cooperative landowners for these type of projects. She added that it's important for people not to mow up to the embankment and not to remove full trees. They can be trimmed, but having trees and bushes on the embankment is what protects the habitat. Newsletters, emails and posters have been sent out and posted to inform the community of the importance of the project.

Closer to the West Arlington Route 313 covered bridge is where brush and wood was placed to protect the cemetery from erosion.

"It's not completely eroding or failing, but we want to be sure that it doesn't," Browning said. "What it will do, it roughens the surface and it will slow down the flow, collect other stuff and protect the banks. If anything comes out of the banks, it's going to fall on that stuff instead of just washing away. It's what they call tow protection."

Browning noted that trees will be planted and large rocks will be used to "clean up" the trace of the project at the river access points once it is finished.

Contact Makayla-Courtney McGeeney at 802-490-6471.


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