Farmers and Fish

Below the winding tributary waters of the Susquehanna River, you may find the elusive Chesapeake logperch hiding along the stream bottom among pebbles and cobbles.

In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, these tiny olive and gold beauties find themselves as neighbors to active working farms, swimming alongside thirsty crops, stomping livestock, and the Amish and Mennonite farmers that bring the land to life.

Most members of the Plain-Sect community live simply. No electricity, no television, no modern amenities. Most don’t drive cars, traveling on horse-drawn buggies through the rolling hills.

While these farmers and fish clearly don’t get around the same way, or frankly have much in common at all, they do share a critical need, both depending on healthy, functional stream systems.

In Pennsylvania, these shared needs have fostered flourishing partnerships between Plain-Sect landowners—the Amish and Mennonite of Lancaster County—and the federal and state agencies, and NGOs that rely on one another to help conserve at-risk wildlife on private land, like the Chesapeake logperch.

Clean water, stable stream banks, and healthy riparian areas help logperch thrive and help farmers make their land productive and sustain their families.

The streams of Lancaster County are one of just a handful of places where the Chesapeake logperch can still be found. Once in streams throughout Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the Chesapeake logperch is state-listed as threatened in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The logperch’s shrinking home range has landed it on the radar of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has been working with state agencies, and locally the Lancaster County Conservation District, Trout Unlimited, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Habitat Forever, and the Foundation for California University of Pennsylvania, along with private landowners to better understand the status of this at-risk species.

The goal? Helping to avoid the need to list the Chesapeake logperch under the Endangered Species Act though proactive conservation of streams throughout the county. These projects are part of a larger effort to conserve the Chesapeake logperch in the states where it is still found.

“Private landowners are key if we are to restore habitat for the Chesapeake logperch,” said Adam Smith, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has been overseeing stream restoration work in Pennsylvania.

According to Smith, a crucial player in the restoration work in Lancaster County is Lavern Brubacher, a Mennonite contractor who has been working with the Service since 2003.

When he’s not constructing chicken barns for local farmers, Brubacher works with landowners to make amazing changes to the streams running through their properties.

Though he doesn’t drive a car, Brubacher does operate the excavator, turning eroded, unhealthy streams into flourishing, productive resources for wildlife and local landowners.

Often discussing projects with farmers in their native Pennsylvania Dutch, Brubacher has served as a liaison between the Service and the Plain-Sect community, helping both parties to reach their goals–productive farms and thriving wildlife and fish habitat.

“These farmers know who they can trust,” Brubacher said. “It’s a strong, close-knit group and it never ceases to make me marvel that everybody is making sure the other is well taken care of; teaching people, helping people help the land.

Lavern explains a mudsill to a local Amish farmer

A local Amish farmer has been working with Brubacher, Smith and Matt Kofroth of the Lancaster County Conservation District to save the eroding stream on his property.

Now, thanks to the restoration work funded by Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the conservation district, the farmer said, “The grass grows and the meadow didn’t flood.”

The project on his farm restored 3,900 feet of the East Branch of Octoraro Creek. To return the stream to a more natural state, a crew created pools and riffles using logs and rocks and stabilized the eroding banks to reconnected the stream to the floodplain. Native trees and shrubs were planted along the stream edge to filter and hold sediment in place, and fencing to keep the livestock off the banks.

“I was always on the edge of losing more pasture in every storm and now with all these 3 and 4 inch rain storms, the creek never went to the top,” the farmer added.

Brubacher and the restoration crew from Habitat Forever worked with the Service to install rock vanes and mudsills along with a livestock crossing.

“These structures protect the stream banks, provide much-needed cover for the logperch and ensure there is clean gravel and cobble,” Smith said.

“The bottom line is if it doesn’t work for the farmer, it doesn’t work for the Service,” he added.

And once these streams are healthy and functional, many species of wildlife can thrive such as trout, mink, muskrats, herons, and belted kingfishers.

“Everybody gets more out of it,” the Amish farmer said.  “A friend said to me last week, ‘I’m coming to fish,’ that just didn’t happen before. We can now get to the stream.”

“Dave Putnam, retired Service biologist, once told me that ‘Wildlife management is people management,’ and we’ve got good people in Lancaster County so I’m very fortunate,” said Smith. “The farmers here have been great and when they see the benefits of our work they tell the next farmer and so on. They may not know too much about the Chesapeake logperch but when we restore that stream, everybody benefits.”

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