Land stewardship is probably the most rewarding experience associated with land ownership. Managing our land, farms, forests, streams and the habitat provided by them involves many challenges today given the multi-faceted impacts of climate change. Below we have provided some considerations and some up-to-date resources. We hope you will consider wild brook trout habitat when managing your land.
Steps to Improve Wild Brook Trout Habitat & Water Quality
1. Provide Ample Forested Buffers to Streams
The influence of land use on aquatic habitats within a watershed has been very well documented. An insufficient vegetated buffer along river and stream banks has contributes to bank erosion and sedimentation. Lack of forest cover also allows direct sunlight to penetrate, causing stream temperatures to rise, evaporation rates increase. Coldwater streams flowing through agricultural areas often lack fully functioning riparian buffers due to stream-side mowing or grazing activity. Logging too close to a stream reduces the amount of precipitation that can infiltrate the soil and removes canopy cover that keeps streams cold.
The best phrase to remember what brook trout need is Trout Grow on Trees, the title of Pennsylvania’s Stroud Center educational program for kids. Streams with forested banks of fine tree roots support 1000 times more organisms than a bare stream bank traversing an open meadow. Forested streams also have greater stream-bottom area. They are typically 2-3 times wider than meadow streams. Grasses tend to encroach streams with a lot of sunlight, accordingly these streams become much more narrow and deep.
Riparian Buffer Protection is the most effective and economically feasible practice to protect aquatic habitat and water quality. Forested stream buffers can be achieved through voluntary land use practices (such as agricultural and forestry best management practices), town ordinances, state law (i.e. The Shoreland Water Quality Protection Act and the Rivers Management and Protection Program (RMPP), deed restriction and conservation easements.
How wide should the stream buffer be to protect brook trout habitat and water quality?
In general, the wider the forested stream buffer, the greater the ecological benefit. A forested buffer of at least 10 m (32.8 ft) will provide minimal level of water quality and habitat benefits. A 2014 scientific article in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association, Streamside Forest Buffer Width Needed to Protect Stream Water Quality, Habitat, and Organisms: A literature Review, evaluated riparian buffer width effectiveness using eight different criteria to determine the best width for protecting habitat and water quality. They determined that for the size of the Warner River and smaller streams, buffer widths of 30 m (98.4 ft) or more (both sides) is necessary to protect physical, chemical and biological integrity. A protected buffer of 100 m (328 ft) or greater provides maximum water quality and habitat benefits while also providing a migration corridor for larger species of wildlife. Buffer protection is lacking on headwater streams despite the cumulative effect that intact riparian zones in headwater streams have on downstream water quality.
2. Leave Twigs, Branches, Logs and Leaves in Streams
Many landowners clean out the branches, logs and fallen trees from their streams, however scientists strongly advocate that this woody debris should be left in streams for the its significant chemical, biological and physical benefit to the habitat. Wood and leaves are natural components of nearly all streams, but just actually how much wood is actually there under natural conditions often goes unnoticed.
Forest litter chemically alter the stream, providing a unique ‘tea’ for trout (and salmon) to smell their way back home. Macroinvertebrates and other microorganisms that form the base of the food chain are provided substrate, habitat and organic matter to consume. Their breakdown of forest refuse feeds many downstream. Fallen tree trunks and large logs alter the hydraulics and geomorphology of the stream, diverting the stream to one side or another, slowing down the flow, making falls that elevate stream oxygen levels and forming more pools where trout and other aquatic species can take refuge during a flood – and drought. The more complex visual patterns these streams also confuse predators. The more diverse the physical structure of the stream, the more biodiversity thrives within the stream. Logs that fall into steep, headwater streams actually develop critical step pool sequences for habitat and flood control. Interestingly as stream gradients decrease, the need for wood to enhance the structure and function of the stream increases.
3. Add Nearby Woody Debris to Streams
For all the reasons above, this is one of the most immediately effective methods of enhancing stream habitat and improving water quality. Sometimes its just a matter of stopping stream maintenance. Other times circumstances may be more severe and call for action. The US Forest Service has been experimenting with these techniques in the White Mountain Forest with tremendous success. We are likely to conduct this kind of project in the watershed for local landowners with brook trout streams and will make updates to this topic over time.
Protecting and Managing Forests in Drinking Water Source Watersheds is essential to providing clean, safe drinking water that we can afford in the future. Water treatment alone is no longer perceived as a practical, single method to secure drinking water supply. Preserving our forests to treat our water and maintain high water quality is much less expensive. To learn more, read the USDA report Forests, Water and People: Drinking water supply and forest lands in the Northeast and Midwest United States.
Healthy Watersheds: Protecting Aquatic Systems through Landscape Approaches
Native Shoreland and Riparian Buffer plantings for NH
Shoreland Protection Fact Sheets
NH Guidelines for Naturalized River Channel Design and Bank Stabilization
Learn More About Brook Trout Habitat here.
Warner River Watershed Conservation Projects for Wild Brook Trout Habitat and Water Quality
Wild for Trout near Mt. Kearsarge, Forest Society Adds 233 Acres to Black Mountain Forest in Sutton, by Brenda Charpentier (December 2016) Basil Woods TU helped to purchase and conserve this valuable headwater brook trout stream.
4. Practice Best Management Logging Practices
Forestry practices today need to consider our changing climate and the specific vulnerabilities associated with site conditions.
Lack of Snow Cover and Frost – Scientists report that our winters are becoming warmer and shorter. Our existing forests typically receive snow cover which protects the small roots and beneficial fungi networks that thrive in the upper duff layer. Lack of snow cover leaves these roots and fungi more exposed and vulnerable to temperature extremes.Lack of snow spring melt means drier forests and tree species stress.
Historically our logging has been done during winter months with substantial frost depths that protect root systems from machine damage. Our 2016 winter was the most mild winter on record. We had very little snow and frost depths in the watershed were minimal or nonexistent. Our current logging practices need to address these changes for future logging operations to remain sustainable.
Ice Storms are predicted to occur more frequently, so exposed higher elevation forests will be more vulnerable.
Soils Vulnerability – Scientist predict southern NH’s climate to be more wet in the spring and early summer, with the majority of our precipitation delivered by higher intensity storm events. Summer and fall are predicted to be warmer with periods of drought. Forest logging in high elevation areas with highly erodible soils will be much more vulnerable to erosion and can lead to flash flooding.
High Winds – Whether more tornadoes, micro-bursts or sustained high gusting winds, more forest blow downs are anticipated by foresters.
Best Management Practices for Forestry: Protecting NH’s Water Quality
Best Management Practices for Erosion Control on Timber Harvesting Operations in N.H.
Good Forestry in the Granite State
Learn more from these outstanding resources from the Stroud Center’s Trout Grow on Trees Benefits of Streamside Forests
5. Practice Best Management Agricultural Practices
Agricultural runoff containing pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers wash into aquatic habitats from agricultural fields, which are often located in the fertile floodplains of medium to large size streams and rivers. Agricultural fields tend to absorb less water so can also lead to increased turbidity, bank erosion, and sediment deposition in adjacent aquatic habitats. The degradation of water quality in a watershed with a high proportion of agricultural land use can be toxic to many aquatic species.
Manual of Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Agriculture in New Hampshire
NH Department of Agriculture, Foods and Markets
Watch the film short Soil Carbon Cowboys to learn how modern ranchers are planting their pastures with a wide variety of plants beneficial to their cattle (and bees). By rotating their herds thru smaller temporary pasture sections, overgrazing is avoided. Their methods have substantially improved soil productivity and structure, allowing much more rain to infiltrate, thereby reducing or eliminating runoff to streams. Their pastures no longer require traditional reseeding or pesticide use and their cattle are healthier – all in all significantly reducing their costs.
Other Helpful Habitat Stewardship Resources
Rare Plants, Exemplary Natural Communities
NH Natural Heritage Bureau
NH Natural Heritage Bureau –Rare plants, animals and exemplary natural communities by municipality
Natural Communities of NH photo guide