AMC’s on-the-ground conservation efforts in Maine extend to the water, thanks to recent successes in aquatic habitat restoration.
That’s a fancy way of saying that, over the past seven years, AMC has worked to restore historic brook-trout habitat on the organization’s 115 square miles of land in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness. To date, AMC and partner agencies have opened 33.5 new miles of streams, with four separate projects restoring 4.5 miles this past summer.
Prior to these efforts, fish passage was blocked by road culverts installed in the 1970s and ’80s, preventing trout from traveling up- or downstream of the structures. By removing old culverts and replacing them with bridges, streams are restored to a more natural state, allowing fish to come and go. “By restoring habitat connectivity, fish populations should stabilize and increase in genetic diversity and resiliency,” explains Steve Tatko, AMC’s land manager for its Maine Woods Initiative (MWI).
As part of MWI, AMC has partnered on the project with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which has contributed $90,000 to $100,000 for three to four projects annually. Other partners include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maine-based contractor William W. London & Son.
“AMC’s land encompasses the headwaters of the West Branch of the Pleasant River and the Roach River watershed, and we have been steadily restoring the aquatic connectivity of those watersheds,” Tatko says. “We are working to remove every barrier to fish passage on our Katahdin Iron Works, Roach Ponds, and Baker Mountain tracts by 2020.”
It’s important work with swift results. “Removing these barriers in two watersheds, where vibrant populations of native brook trout still remain, immediately helps to keep the population sustainable and protects its genetic integrity,” Tatko says. “Once you pull a barrier to fish passage and install a fish-friendly structure, aquatic organisms will immediately start to use it. It’s amazing to see how fast these stream ecosystems can recover from decades of constriction.” On one recent project, an NRCS fisheries biologist witnessed a foot-long brook trout plying the waters moments after a stream was reopened.
AMC’s aquatic restoration fits in with a regional, decade-long push to allow sea-run fish (or those that migrate between fresh and salt water) to reach their historic spawning grounds in the upper reaches of the Penobscot. Other key endeavors have included the removal of two dams on the lower Penobscot and a dam bypass above Bangor. “That work has made it possible for Atlantic salmon to reach their traditional spawning grounds as far north as Gulf Hagas, adjacent to AMC’s land,” Tatko says. “Through our watershed restoration efforts, we are part of a huge conservation success story that runs from the mountains all the way to the sea.”
Tatko says the integrity of the watersheds is enhanced by AMC establishing 27,000 acres of ecological reserve lands between 2007 and 2016. “All of this work means we have finally begun to reconnect the tremendous web of habitat that has been fractured by human interruption for over 150 years,” he says. “Having connected and healthy watersheds is critical to future habitat and species resiliency.”