Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Restoring Big Run Since 2006

TMI’s Spruce Knob Mountain Center lies in the far reaches of the Big Run watershed. For many years, Big Run has been the centerpiece to the watershed education element of our programs. During this time, students have been assessing the upper sections of Big Run, learning of the importance of high quality headwater streams, and beginning to understand the upstream – downstream concept. Since these first days of TMI’s watershed education programming, Big Run has been the example of a nearly perfect stream.

The waters come together in a meadow and begin flowing as Big Run at approximately 3500 feet in elevation. Rain and spring water from the western flank of Spruce Knob and the eastern continental divide create the stream, and it is separated from the headwaters of the well-known Seneca Creek by only a small ridge. Big Run meanders through this meadow and gains water from its many tributaries. As it grows, it provides a fresh water home to myriad organisms, including a high biodiversity of macroinvertebrates, a colony of beavers, and a reproducing population of eastern brook trout.

Big Run offers a near perfect environment for all of its inhabitants, but as with any watershed, it is only as good as the sum of all of its parts. The stream is one of the few remaining intact watersheds for brook trout in West Virginia. These fish can travel the stream length in its entirety and many move upstream each fall to the tiniest of tributaries to spawn. It was in few of these seemingly insignificant waterways where a major problem was occurring for the reproducing trout. Their spawning grounds were being degraded by an unlikely contender, cattle.

Within the Monongahela National Forest there are several areas where private farms hold grazing rights. There is an area like this on a tributary of upper Big Run, where the cows, grazing throughout the spring, summer, and fall, rely on the small tributary as a drinking water source. The narrow foot of the heavy cow easily collapses the stream’s banks, creating more of a wetland than a stream system. This impact increases turbidity in the water, exposes more of the water to sunlight - raising temperature, and destroys the stream channel needed for trout reproduction.

Since 2006, TMI has been working with TU to help repair and restore these tributaries of the stream. TU, in conjunction with US Fish and Wildlife, has set miles of cattle fencing around the tributaries to keep the herd out, built bridges over stream crossings, and created alternative water sources, spring fed troughs, for the cows. TU has been providing management of the restoration site and TMI has been providing students. Since 2006, TU, TMI, and their students have planted thousands of trees in the riparian zone of the affected stream lengths. The results are already impressive, as the trees are beginning to grow, the tributaries are again channelized, grass is shading the channels, and turbidity has dropped. If you visit this area in fall and approach the banks slowly, you may just catch a glimpse of reproducing brook trout in their spawning bed.

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