Tag Archives: Wildlife Sport Fish and Restoration

Saving an ancient fish in modern times

This story was originally published on our new Medium blog platform

 

Surrounded by vast northern Maine wilderness, Big Reed Pond sits peacefully on a mountaintop. A single cabin hides between the conifers that line its banks. The nearest town is 48 miles away.

Cabin owners Igor and Karen Sikorsky operate Bradford Camps, a guiding company that flies anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts to prime, remote fishing spots via their Cessna 172 floatplane.

Around the time that the Sikorskys took over the camp, something started to go very wrong at Big Reed.

“When we took over in ’96, almost everyone went to Big Reed Pond to go fishing — it was so good,” Igor Sikorsky said. “By 1998, two years later, nobody went there because whenever you went there you never caught a fish.”

It was more than just not catching fish. The fish were disappearing.

The Sikorsky’s float plane gliding over Big Reed Pond in the fall. Credit: Maine DIFW

One in particular: the Arctic charr, a fish found in just one state in the Lower 48 — Maine.

Though not quite dinosaurs, charr, also known as blueback trout, were the first fish species to colonize Maine waters when the glaciers receded over present-day North America. They now exist in only 14 lakes and ponds in the state.

Big Reed Pond — one of those lakes — was under threat. Charr had survived thousands of years just to face rainbow smelt, a fish native to some waters in Maine, but illegally introduced into Big Reed Pond. Smelt caused charr numbers to plummet, competing with them for food and feeding on newly hatched charr.

“It was terrible. A large part of the value of this business that we bought was the fact that Reed Pond was a successful fishery,” Sikorsky said. “That was many of our guests’ favorite pond to fish in the whole world.”

Though the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife had been managing charr populations since the 1960s, the threat of rainbow smelt kicked their efforts into high gear, beginning a 10-year process to reclaim Big Reed Pond.

Operation: Reclamation

Frank Frost, fisheries biologist with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, led the charge against smelt in Big Reed Pond.

He had overseen charr management and conservation since 2000 and was witnessed to the sudden decline of Arctic charr in Big Reed Pond.

At this point, it wasn’t enough to just try to increase charr numbers. Without removing smelt all together, the charr population would inevitably fall again.

Frost and his team decided on a total reset of Big Reed Pond: a reclamation.

Aquatic reclamation involves removing unwanted fish species from a water body, like the illegally introduced smelt, and then restocking it with desired fish species, like native Arctic charr and brook trout. At Big Reed the removal process involved a plant-based product called Rotenone, which impacts the way that fish use oxygen in the water.

Before biologists eradicated the smelt and restored the pond fishery, they had to make sure there would be enough charr to support a healthy population. The state partnered with a local hatchery to rear charr for later reintroduction.

But even this first step posed challenges. They needed to catch as many of the few remaining charr as possible to begin the rearing process.

It took four years. And in all that time, they were able to catch only 14.

Maine state biologists toil to catch charr for captive rearing. Credit: Maine DIFW

The second challenge was transportation.

The long hike up to the pond cuts through the largest old growth forest in New England and the fish wouldn’t survive the long trek out.

“Time was of the essence,” Sikorsky said.

So they forewent the trail and took to the sky.

Aided by helicopters from the Maine Army National Guard and the Sikorsky’s floatplane, those lone 14, the sole future of charr in Big Reed, were flown to the hatchery where they would reside while biologists cleared the pond of the unwelcome visitors.

“We actually didn’t lose a single fish in the flying process,” Sikorsky said.

Then, in October 2010, it was finally time to reclaim Big Reed. Thousands of pounds of gear, Rotenone, state staff and volunteers were flown in.

It took several days. State biologists needed to eradicate rainbow smelt from every inch of Big Reed Pond.

And they did. Since the reclamation, smelt have not been found at Big Reed Pond.

The following summer, hundreds of hatchery-raised charr, with direct bloodlines from Big Reed, were reintroduced to the pond. This continued for three consecutive years in hopes of carrying on the legacy of this ancient fish by producing a wild charr spawn.

It Takes a Village

The large-scale operation came with a lot of uncertainty — as well as a lot of partners to ensure its success.

Frost noted the important roles of Bradford Camps, the University of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, as well as the Maine Army Aviation Support Facility in Bangor and the Presque Isle High School Aquaculture Facility. Some funding for hatchery efforts came from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund.

“With these really complex, long term projects, you just can’t stand alone,“ Frost said.

Critical funding for this project came through the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Fund administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These funds support state fish and wildlife agency partners to restore and manage sport fish for the benefit of the public, including rare sport fish species like the Arctic charr.

“The project wouldn’t have happened without Sport Fish funds,” said Peter Bourque, former Director of Fisheries for Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

These funds are generated in part through a tax on fishing equipment and boating fuels, and help to support sportfish management and restoration throughout the country.

“It was money well spent by the anglers who bought their fishing rods,” Sikorsky said.

In recognition of the restoration, the American Fisheries Society presented the department and Maine DIFW fisheries biologist Frank Frost with their annual Sport Fish Restoration Outstanding Project award in 2017.

Igor Sikorsky shows off hatchery raised charr before depositing them into Big Reed Pond. Credit: Maine DIFW

“When you have the benefit of collaboration and planning, you have more control over the outcome,” said Francis Brautigam, the current DIFW Director of Fisheries. “Proactive conservation allows for out-of-the-box thinking, and the ability to pursue strategic and collaborative solutions to complex issues.”

The outcome was a win for wildlife and people. A species once destined for the federal endangered species list was determined to be stable — even increasing.

Faith, Reward, and Relief

Last summer, success materialized at Big Reed.

Frost and his son, Noah, were out on the water on a warm June day, pulling in nets, looking for evidence that charr had successfully reproduced in Big Reed. Then they spotted something.

“I knew it was a wild fish as soon as it came out of the water,” Frost said.

Small, about 10 inches, pale silver with a tell-tale blue back, and — most importantly — hatched naturally in Big Reed, this charr was a symbol of triumph.

After so much time away from home while working at Big Reed, Frost recounted how meaningful it was to have his son with him that day. Noah recently started the same undergraduate program Frost completed 30 years prior, carrying on the family legacy: fisheries biology, at the University of Maine.

“I didn’t have to explain how important this fish was; he knew,” Frost said.

 

The Arctic charr is one of more than 185 fish, wildlife and plants in the eastern U.S. that have recovered, been downlisted, or did not need listing under the Endangered Species Act, thanks to coordination with public and private partners. The effort to conserve at-risk wildlife and recover listed species is led by the Service and state wildlife agencies in partnership with other organizations. Our use of conservation incentives and flexibilities to protect wildlife, reduce regulations and keep working lands working has drawn bipartisan support from Congress.

So what’s the Buzz all about?: A new silence in Vermont

Mark is Natural Heritage Zoologist with the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife. Photo credit: VT Dept of Fish & Wildlife.

Mark is a Natural Heritage Zoologist with the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife. Photo credit: VT Dept of Fish & Wildlife.

Signs of spring in the Northeast include the return of songbirds, flowering plants and sounds of buzzing bees. But this year, one of these biological indicators appears to be missing. As we recognize National Pollinator Week, we hear from Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist Mark Ferguson about a recent study that has sounded the alarm on the dismal status of bumble bee populations in Vermont, and the larger effect it could have on agriculture and people.

 

A northern amber bumble bee nectaring on red clover. Photo credit: Kent McFarland, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

A northern amber bumble bee nectaring on red clover. Photo credit: Kent McFarland, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

Silence has gradually descended upon the state of Vermont. If you listen closely, you might notice that something is missing from the spring air. That something is the sound of certain bees buzzing. Bees should be eagerly making their way from flower to flower as they seek nectar and pollen, while performing the vital function of pollination. Wild bees are wildflower and agricultural superstars, helping pollinate many crops in Vermont, including blueberries, tomatoes, squash, and one of the state’s most essential commodities, apples.

A common eastern bumble bee nest. Photo credit: Kent McFarland, Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

A common eastern bumble bee nest. Photo credit: Kent McFarland, Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

Since the late 1990’s, wildlife biologists have noticed a decline in the abundance and distribution of bumble bee species worldwide. Yet, scientists had little knowledge of bee distribution, rarity and habitat needs in Vermont. So in 2012 the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) with support from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department initiated the Vermont Bumble Bee Survey. The goal: to document past and current populations and distributions of bumble bees and the Eastern carpenter bee across the state.

To fund this massive and critical biological assessment, the VCE looked to partners for assistance. Along with Binnacle Family Foundation and the Riverledge Foundation, the Service’s State Wildlife Grant Program provided the financial backing to complete the project. The State Wildlife Grant Program is administered through the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, with the intent of benefiting fish and wildlife “species at risk”.

Lief Richardson works on the Vermont Bumble Bee Survey. Photo credit: Kent McFarland, Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

Lief Richardson works on the Vermont Bumble Bee Survey. Photo credit: Kent McFarland, Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

After enlisting and training a corps of “citizen scientists”, the Survey team searched more than 1,500 locations across the state’s 14 counties. From spring 2012 to fall 2014 the group moved from roadsides to mountain meadows, amassing a database that exceeded 10,000 individual encounters with 12 species of bumble bees and the Eastern carpenter bee.

Of the 17 bumble bee species known historically in Vermont, the team was unsuccessful at locating 5 species, the rusty-patched bumble bee, American bumble bee, Ashton’s cuckoo bumble bee, Fernald cuckoo bumble bee and indiscriminate cuckoo bumble bee. One species not know historically in Vermont was observed more recently, the black and gold bumble bee.

5 (1)After further analysis, the team determined that more than one-quarter of Vermont’s bumble bee species, which are vital crop and wild plant pollinators, have either vanished or are in serious decline. Nine species of bumble bees appear to be of conservation concern. Five of these species seem to have disappeared and others may not be far behind. Yet, at the same time, some common species appear to have increased in abundance and distribution compared to historical data.

A yellow-banded bumble bee. PHoto credit: Kent McFarland, Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

A yellow-banded bumble bee. Photo credit: Kent McFarland, Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

So what does all this mean for the future of bumble bees, agriculture and conservation? The Vermont Bumble Bee Survey put bumble bees on the conservation radar screen. Vermont then used Bumble Bee Survey data as justification for including nine bumble bees as Species of Greatest Conservation Need in its newly revised Wildlife Action Plan. Though still in review, the Action Plan is already supporting the development of guidelines for bumble bee habitat improvements for private and public landowners. This is an important first step in developing a comprehensive strategy for bumble bee conservation that could have lasting impacts on not only the state’s conservation success, but also its social and economic future.

 

 

Vermont bumble bee species profiles

Vermont’s Wildlife Action Plan

Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program

Learn more about pollinators

Standing high at West Virginia’s Cheat Canyon

The scenic Cheat Canyon. Photo credit: Kent Mason

The scenic Cheat Canyon. Photo credit: Kent Mason

Dan Leahy stands with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Governor Earl Ray Tomblin at the Cheat Mountain dedication. Photo credit: USFWS/John Schmidt

Dan Leahy stands with U.S. Senator Joe Manchin and West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin at the Cheat Canyon dedication. Photo credit: USFWS/John Schmidt

On Friday, Dan Leahy, a lands and development specialist for our Wildlife Sport Fish and Restoration Program, stood beside West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin as he formally recognized the establishment of the state’s newest protected natural area: Cheat Canyon. Leahy was also joined by local and state politicians, and representatives from The Conservation Fund, The Nature Conservancy and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, who all played critical roles in securing the 3,800 acres of remote canyon forest along the Cheat River.

The purchase and protection of this land is also a testament to the effectiveness of the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

Representatives from partnering agencies stand together to celebrate their accomplishment. Photo credit: USFWS/John Schmidt

Representatives from partnering agencies stand together to celebrate their accomplishment. Photo credit: USFWS/John Schmidt

Check out this post from earlier this year which highlighted and celebrated the incredible effort to protect this land and wildlife that depend on it for survival.

Visitors enjoying the majestic views of West Virginia's mountains at Cheat Canyon. Photo credit: USFWS/John Schmidt

Visitors enjoying the majestic views of West Virginia’s mountains at Cheat Canyon. Photo credit: USFWS/John Schmidt

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Learn more about the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act