“You wish to see the frontier?”
“Yes, sir. Before it is gone.”
– Major Fambrough and John Dunbar, Dances With Wolves
During his stint as a Dakota Territory ranch hand in the 1880s, future president Theodore Roosevelt wrote to a friend that he must hunt the American bison “before they’re all gone.” Roosevelt, the architect of the modern National Park System and icon of the conservation movement, appears to have held a certain sense of pragmatism in his youth regarding the long-term sustainability of America’s natural resources.
That anecdote popped into my head last night while attending the Southern Wisconsin Trout Unlimited (SWTU) monthly meeting. Paul Cunningham of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was presenting a wealth of data regarding the DNR’s Driftless Area Master Plan, an exhaustive document that, once completed, will act as a blueprint for coldwater resource management in southern and western Wisconsin.
Part of future resource management is anticipating near-term environmental and habitat changes that will result from the effects of changing climate; ergo, warmer summers and milder winters will ultimately lead to warmer water temperatures in trout and smallmouth bass streams. Since trout habitats are temperature-sensitive, changing climates will have a major impact on the number of trout stream miles present in the Driftless Area.
Cunningham presented a graphic of the Driftless Area, with current brook trout stream habitat color-coded: black for stable streams that will likely continue to harbor brookies by the middle of the 21st century (defined as a period from the years 2046-2055), yellow for streams at risk for loss of brookie habitat; and red for streams where brookie habitat will almost certainly be lost due to warming temperatures. Most of the streams were emblazoned in red.
To emphasize that visual impact, Cunningham brought it down to numbers: about 75% of brook trout streams in the Driftless Area are at-risk or likely to be lost.
The master plan itself further cements those numbers (the planning documents are available in their entirety online). The master plan breaks down the entire Driftless area in to eight distinct watersheds. More than 60% of brook trout habitat is likely to be lost in all eight watersheds by mid-century. In the dry-yet-haunting verbage of scientific literature, the report notes that “brook trout are projected to be largely extirpated in the Platte and Pecatonica River Regions, and its status is tenuous in the Kinnickinnic River Region.”
The report goes on to break down brook trout habitat by individual sub-watershed and reach, doling out “report cards” for each detailing the likely resistance each will be to changing climate and estimating total stream miles lost. While the report itself doesn’t get down to individual stretches by name, an astute angler with knowledge of a region (or a good trout stream map) can surmise which of their favorite streams will survive with their brookie populations intact, and which won’t. I have found several streams in which I have caught brook trout marked red. It’s a sobering thought to realize you’ve already hunted Roosevelt’s bison.
I should note that the report is not all doom-and-gloom. Brown trout habitats are considerably more resilient to climate change; the DNR models indicate that most of the watersheds will retain at least 80% of brown trout stream miles. For smallmouth bass the outcome is more like a victory: smallies, those lovers of water temperatures ever-so-slightly-warmer than trout, are expected to find their habitat ranges increased as a result of warming temperatures.
Those of you that follow this blog, or who have visited my other website, know that I’m an avid smalljaw angler; but this news rings hollow when it comes at the expense of brook and brown trout. Especially brook trout. To me the brookie is the soul of the Driftless area; it is our only native salmonid, as much of an Ice-Age-survivor as the landscape that cradles it. Despite a century-plus of habitat degradation following European settlement, and the introduction of competitive browns to their home waters, and an attack of gill lice, the brook trout is still here. In as little as three decades it may be very hard to find.
What can be done? I got the gist that Cunningham and others at the DNR are still working to find that answer. In some ways we need to be willing to cut our losses; there are many ways in which trout habitat can be improved in a stream setting, but we don’t have our hands on Earth’s thermostat. Many stretches of brookie habitat may be irrevocably lost. For those at-risk or stable stream miles there may be ways to mitigate water temperature changes through the proper management of riparian habitat. Cunningham suggested that may entail changing the ways in which we approach riparian habitats; forested streambanks, for example, help maintain lower water temperatures due to the shading effects of large trees versus the lack of larger vegetation found in pastured streambanks.
The maintenance of brook-trout-friendly habitats may end up more costly and labor-intensive than current approaches. I personally find a great appeal in Cunningham’s suggestion of the creation of “Brook Trout Reserves”, or stream miles that are intensively managed to support necessary habitat conditions for brook trout. I imagine creating reserves for streams that provide the best chance for the survival of brookies against changing climate; utilizing a separate management plan for said reserves; and possibly developing regulations for the use of reserves independent of other trout streams.
It’s an effort that I believe other conservation organizations should get behind. Creation, maintenance, and preservation of brook trout reserves it going to require a holistic approach to stream conservation that overlaps with the mission goals of many narrow-focus groups: Trout Unlimited, Prairie Enthusiasts, Audubon Society, land trusts, local watershed associations, etc. At this stage it is simply important to show support of the idea and urge the DNR to move toward legitimizing the concept.
More importantly, I think it needs to be done soon. Very soon. These models are predicting the future of our sport fishery in as little as thirty years. It is likely that the effects of changing climate on trout stream habitat will begin to be observed and felt even earlier than that.
A decade ago I may have held a more pragmatic philosophy akin to a young Roosevelt. Things may change, but I’ll be long dead before it really becomes noticeable. Now it’s clear that our fisheries will be impacted well within my lifetime. Definitely within the lifespan of my children, or that of my five-year-old nephew who has just begun to discover fishing but has yet to enjoy the catch of a brook trout. For him I look forward to sharing the excitement of that first brookie on a fly.
Not because they’ll soon be gone. But because they’ll always be here.