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Wyoming district helps restore streambank, improve fish habitat

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Saratoga Encampment Rawlins Conservation District and the Brush Creek-Hayden U.S. Forest Service Ranger District have been working with other agencies and organizations to improve aquatic habitats by removing or modifying in-channel barriers and stabilizing riverbanks.

The project began in 2011 on the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and included collaboration with Christina Barrineau with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Joe Parsons with the Saratoga-Encampment-Rawlins Conservation District and Jeff Streeter with Trout Unlimited. That first project included an eight-mile habitat reconnection on the East Fork of the Encampment River.

“That reconnection was pretty significant,” Parsons said. “There were some people who were very nervous when we started going down this path, because it didn’t necessarily look like what they’re used to seeing. But when you start narrowing these channels and deepening the pools, you’re able to improve late summer and winter aquatic habitats.”

Parsons will be recognized in June with a U.S. Forest Service 2018 Rise to the Future Award for his efforts on the project.

“Trout really need deep pools to survive, and there’s a reduction of flooding associated with our work,” he said. “We really feel like we’ve enhanced spawning, and we won’t run into as many gaps in age classes of fish.”

In 2015, 1,800 feet of streambank along the North Platte River was restored to a more natural stream pattern. The project design also addressed controlling bank erosion by incorporating four rock vanes, transplanting willows and shrubs and re-seeding new floodplain benches and disturbed areas.

To date, partners have been involved in 16 projects on and around the national forest, including construction of a rock ramp at a concrete diversion weir on a private ranch that reconnected 60 miles of aquatic habitat on Big Creek, an important spawning tributary to the North Platte River. The work included planting thousands of willows and shrubs.

When completed, habitat reconnection efforts will total 109 miles of the North Platte and Encampment Rivers and their tributaries. To date, a total of 86 miles of stream habitat, all on national forest lands, are accessible to trout because of the barrier removal projects. In addition, three miles of channel in the North Platte and Encampment Rivers has been restored.

As projects continue, more private landowners express interest in engaging in the river restoration and habitat reconnection efforts.

“The landowners are very habitat-oriented, whether big game or fish species… one of their first thoughts is, ‘What is it going to do to the wildlife,’” Parsons said. “That’s pretty cool stuff when you have a landowner coming to you saying, ‘What can we do about this?’”

The partners continue to address the North Platte/Encampment River Watershed as a landscape-scale endeavor, which benefits multiple species. Toewood structures help stabilize riverbanks and enhance trout habitat. Eliminating junipers improves understory forage, which supports more mule deer. Improved browsing for wildlife is further enhanced by riparian fencing to defer grazing of livestock until vegetation is reestablished. Efforts also have benefited amphibious species.

“We’ve had some really good partners with Trout Unlimited, Game and Fish and BLM,” Parsons said.

“The town of Saratoga has the fishery running right through, and it’s the lifeblood of this area,” he said. “We get a whole lot of recreationists coming to the valley to fish, and we have a thriving tourism economy in Saratoga, so reconnecting miles of stream leads to a robust and more diverse local economy while enhancing fish populations.

“We’re reducing the amount of sediment going back into the system and creating better water quality than ever before.”

For more stories like this, check out NACD’s Forestry Notes.

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