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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Fish biologists record the age, sex and size of wild brown trout. Some will be used as brood stock, and their offspring will be stocked in southwestern Wisconsin streams. © Robert Queen
Fish biologists record the age, sex and size of wild brown trout. Some of these trout will be used as brood stock, and their offspring will be stocked in southwestern Wisconsin streams.
© Robert Queen

February 2002

Restoring life to a watershed

Once destined to die a slow death from erosion, streams in the Coulee Region now support thriving populations of brook and brown trout.

Lisa Gaumnitz

Land conservation succeeds in Coon Valley
Benefits beyond the farm
Fine tuning the fishery
Stream renewal in the west
"Coulee Region streams are in extremely poor shape because of the watershed management problems, and it is probable that the habitat conditions will continue to be degraded. Because of this fact it is also likely that trout stream fishing in the Coulee Region may practically disappear in the future." – John Brasch, 1958

More than 40 years after his predecessor declared Wisconsin's coulee streams all but dead, David Vetrano is witness and conspirator to a remarkable recovery.

Improvements in farming practices, changes in land use, and habitat projects the fish biologist has pursued with partners are recovering battered but promising stream segments. Their actions have helped heal the valleys south of La Crosse.

The streams are returning to a condition not seen for more than 150 years. Trout – and trout anglers – are following in a big way.

Recent fish surveys have revealed trout in 250 miles of streams that a generation ago carried only chubs, suckers and the like. More than 901 miles of streams in Crawford, La Crosse, Monroe and Vernon counties are now classified as trout waters.

Streams in the Timber Coulee Watershed have evolved into marquee, self-sustaining fisheries that draw more than double the number of anglers of just five years ago, and also supply brood stock for the state's wild brown trout stocking program.

This year, Vetrano will reach another important milestone in managing these streams. DNR fisheries crews will transfer adult and juvenile brook trout from Seas Branch Creek to other southwestern streams that have sufficiently recovered to support this sensitive native fish, revered by many as the most beautiful of all freshwater fish.

"It's pretty amazing," Vetrano says. "Here we are 40 years after that report, and we're putting pretty brookies back into the streams. Some people question whether you can make enough changes in land use to make a positive difference and you obviously can."

It's a story being played out across Wisconsin, although most vividly in the steep hills of the state's Driftless Area in the southwestern and west central regions.

Last year, DNR fisheries biologists statewide submitted requests to upgrade 810 miles of restored stream as trout water based on the results of recent fish and water quality surveys, according to Larry Claggett, DNR's coldwater fisheries ecologist.

That boosts to 10,371 the total number of stream miles clean enough to feed and support trout, with the biggest gains coming in Class I streams that can now sustain native trout populations without any supplemental stocking.

Class I mileage increased 17 percent, from 3,536 miles in 1980 to 4,136 miles today, while Class II waters, those able to support trout from one year to the next with the help of stocking, increased 401 miles. Class III waters decreased as a result of the upgrades, Claggett says.

The re-classifications will appear in the Wisconsin Trout Stream book scheduled to be released this year and also available online. To protect the gains, the upgrades will trigger changes in fishing regulations as well as potentially stronger pollution controls, and new habitat improvement projects.

"It's a great story, particularly in southwestern Wisconsin," Claggett says. "We're seeing that what we do on the landscape makes a difference for our streams and on everything else. We're seeing increased license sales, increased recreational opportunities, economic effects. The whole package makes a great story that ends, hopefully, with happy anglers."

Land conservation succeeds in Coon Valley

Nowhere is the story of the trout stream recovery more dramatic – or better documented – than in Coon Valley, a 92,000-acre watershed south of La Crosse. Here, the federal government, along with desperate, but willing, landowners and farsighted bankers, launched the nation's first watershed project in the mid-1930s, an era when dust bowls and horrendous flooding reigned nationwide.

They sought to save their soil, their farms and their communities from the ravages of 80 years of intensive farming. Their collective plan employed a bold, holistic approach that harnessed private initiative, government technical know-how and resources. Along the way, they saved the trout.

Brook trout had been plentiful in Coon Valley Creek when the first white settler arrived in the region in 1849. Buffalo, deer, elk and wild turkey roamed what was an oak savanna maintained by the fires Native Americans periodically started or allowed to burn, according to Jim Radke, National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) district conservationist in Viroqua.

Glaciers that carved much of Wisconsin's topography bypassed this area. Silt blown from the glacial retreat 10,000 years ago left a dusting of debris that over time became a rich, thin layer of topsoil particularly vulnerable to erosion from ridges that rose to 500 feet above the valley floor.

Waves of settlers arrived, lured by favorable economics: with wheat selling for 50 cents to $2 per bushel and land selling for not much more, settlers could pay off their farms quickly. "By the 1870s, this area basically was settled, cleared, and the land suitable for farming was put to plow, causing tremendous erosion," says Radke.

Farmers grew corn and hay in straight rows up and down the hills, and used plows that broke up the protective grass cover over the topsoil. Neither practice allowed much rain to soak in. Instead, it ran off in concentrated channels that eventually carved great gullies on the landscape.

The farmers pastured their cows in the remnant woodlots and alongside the creeks, compacting the soils and exacerbating erosion problems. Flash floods two to three times a year washed out roads and bridges and sent silt into the bottomlands by the hundreds of tons.

With pasture no longer as productive, farmers suffered feed shortages, decreases in milk productivity, and resulting financial hardship. By 1931, nearly one-third were delinquent in their taxes. A drought in 1934 added to the burden.

"It was a watershed destined to die," Radke says. "It was in terrible shape. From 1849 to the 1930s there were no conservation practices used and the soils were pretty well depleted."

Help arrived that year when the fledgling Soil Erosion Service, a predecessor to today's NRCS, chose Coon Valley as a testing ground to deploy a team of agricultural, natural resource and economics professionals to work cooperatively with farmers on land conservation plans.

"It installed on farms a recognized system of land use, in which not only soil conservation and agriculture, but also forestry, game fish, fur, flood control scenery, songbirds or any pertinent interest were to be duly integrated," Aldo Leopold wrote in an essay on the project.

It was the kind of ecosystem management approach Leopold would become famous for while a game management professor at the University of Wisconsin. Leopold, who was involved in the Coon Valley project from its inception, succeeded in lobbying to add a wildlife specialist to the project staff.

The plans considered each farm's soil and slopes, and then arranged land use accordingly. The steepest slopes (more than 40 percent) were considered woodlands, left in trees and fenced to keep cows out. Fields with slopes of 20 to 30 percent were put into managed pasture. Slopes under 20 percent were considered croplands; slopes under 10 percent were put into terraces, and lesser slopes (under 3 percent) were planted in alternating strips of hay between corn or wheat along the contour to prevent erosion. Sometimes terraces and contour stripping were used in combination. Crops were rotated from year to year.

John Haugen was among 418 of 800 Coon Valley farmers to agree to a plan by 1937. On a recent, drizzly fall day, his sons, Ernest and Joseph, pulled out a sheaf of yellowed maps and papers they've treasured since their father signed the contract on March 19, 1934.

Soil conservation efforts like contouring and strip farming started 75 years ago in Vernon County. Today, those measures help reduce runoff and erosion. Area trout streams are cleaner as a result. © Natural Resources Conservation Service
Soil conservation efforts like contouring and strip farming started 75 years ago in Vernon County. Today, those measures help reduce runoff and erosion. Area trout streams are cleaner as a result.

© Natural Resources Conservation Service

Their neighbors wouldn't sign up, worried the government was going to take their land away, the brothers recalled. But their father was eager for the free technical help, free fertilizer and lime, free alfalfa seed, free firewood and free work by the Civilian Conservation Corps. He also was eager to stop the relentless erosion.

"There were a lot of gullies," says Ernest Haugen. "I helped bury a horse in the gully."

"They put the grain bundles in the gullies to drive over so they could get the crops out of the field," Ernest says. "We didn't know what contour stripping was. We did not know how to control soil erosion before 1934."

"Soil does not run away now," Joseph chips in slyly.

CCC crews became a fixture on the farm – and a curiosity – as they built 11 terraces, fenced in the woodlot, and helped draw out contour strips. The young brothers would return home from school and follow the CCC men as they used a new Caterpillar tractor and a grader to make the terraces. People wandered over from a baseball game to see those terraces. "Some thought they were awful," Ernest Haugen says.

But to the brothers, everything the watershed project achieved was good – so much so they built additional terraces and have kept the original CCC improvements intact over the last seven decades, with the exception of the fence around the woods.

The improvements came quickly for the Haugens and others. "The barn got full of hay afterward," Joseph Haugen says.

Farmers had extra feed within two years, the butterfat content in the cows' milk increased, and farmers could convert steep cropland to pasture because they were getting more crops from less steep croplands, Radke says. Perhaps most importantly, attitudes were changing.

Farmers who admitted they had signed up for the program expecting to convert back to the old ways at the end of their five-year contracts now embraced the new ways. By 1938, 70 farmers who hadn't signed up were using some of the conservation farming practices, mostly contour strips.

Benefits beyond the farm

In the following decades other benefits have been documented, partly the result of continuing improvements in agricultural practices, and partly due to the conversion of cropland to recreational use, as low commodity prices squeeze dairy farmers out of business.

Researchers have found significant decreases in erosion in the Driftless Area, and in more recent years, have explored the effect on floods and groundwater in the area. Both are critical factors; groundwater is the lifeblood of Wisconsin's trout streams, and frequent, devastating floods can inundate the gravelly pools where trout lay their eggs.

Warren Gebert, District Chief for the U.S. Geological Survey in Middleton, and colleague William Krug examined records from as early as 1916 showing the annual low flows in southwestern Wisconsin streams.

The changes in farming practices increased infiltration of water into the ground, raising groundwater levels and increasing base flow and the annual seven-day low flows, Gebert says. Another study Krug conducted found that the changes in farming practices have also cut the annual flood peaks in southwestern Wisconsin.

In short, southwestern Wisconsin streams now receive more water and colder water. The streams more closely resemble their condition before statehood. That's particularly good news for brook trout, a cold-water species that doesn't tolerate wide swings in daily or seasonal temperature. Groundwater-fed streams stay between 48-52°F year-round, keeping trout cool in the summer, and keeping their eggs warm enough over the winter before they hatch.

Water quality and habitat improvements on some stream segments aim to add cover overhanging the stream. This shade moderates water temperature swings and provides cover for insects, birds and a host of aquatic food sources. "You get many, many positive benefits just from increasing cover," Dave Vetrano says. "We've been able to get 1400 to 1500 percent increases in trout density along certain segments by doing trout habitat work."

Fine tuning the fishery

Every year Vetrano and other DNR fisheries staff and partners, such as Trout Unlimited, work on habitat improvement projects on three to five miles of stream. Through 2001, fisheries crews statewide had completed 580 miles of habitat since the Trout Stamp was started in the late 1970s to provide funds for that purpose.

Fish managers in each region of the state build structures to provide artificial bank cover uniquely designed to suit each stream's needs. The projects differ according to a stream's gradient and particular problems, but they all aim to narrow the stream, increase water velocity, scour pools, and recreate floodplains as well as provide the cover adult fish need to rest and feed.

John Bethke, western Wisconsin regional vice chair of Trout Unlimited, sees the results of the improved habitat and water quality in his catches. He's been fishing the area for 25 years, and he relishes the memory of pulling large brown trout from little-fished southwestern streams in the early 1970s.

Brown trout, a species native to Germany that was brought to the United States in the 1880s for stocking, has since become acclimated to Wisconsin. Browns can prosper in streams with higher temperatures, lower oxygen levels, and higher loads of sediment and other pollutants. Browns will also eat small warmwater species such as some minnows for food.

With groundwater flows contributing more water to the streams, the temperature is dropping, the food sources are less diverse and the browns are smaller. "Now, we have more trout, but fewer large trout," Bethke says. That state of affairs isn't to everyone's liking, but it is to his. Bethke has moved away from bait fishing to fly fishing over the years. He now enjoys the solitude and beauty he finds in some of southwestern Wisconsin's smaller, less well-known streams, and is perfectly happy to catch and release 12-inch brookies all day.

As the instructor of a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse course on fly-fishing, Bethke appreciates the increased opportunities delivered by the larger trout populations and the permanent early trout season, which he helped design as a member of a group charged with the task.

As a resident of an area where the economy has not kept pace with the rest of the state and farmers are increasingly calling it quits, Bethke is happy for the economic boost trout fishing has brought to the area. A recently completed study by University of Wisconsin researchers found the number of anglers on streams surveyed in the popular Timber Coulee Region and along the West Fork of the Kickapoo River doubled from 4,000 in 1994 to 8,800 in 1999. Two-thirds of the anglers came from outside the region and those new anglers spent an additional $1.2 million.

Yet Bethke admits to feeling somewhat conflicted. Twenty-five years ago, he was skeptical about the future of trout fishing at the turn of the 21st century. Now, he gets a feeling that "the very thing you're promoting is being loved to death."

Stream renewal in the west

Marty Engel, a DNR fisheries biologist in Baldwin, sees improvements in the western Wisconsin streams in Dunn, Pepin, Pierce and St. Croix counties. One measure of that success is reflected in the number of cars parked along access points to the Kinnickinnic River, the Rush River and other streams. Another successful project will continue this year on Cady Creek in Pierce County where DNR crews have stabilized, shaped and seeded 2.5 miles of streambanks.

In the 1950s, many of the area's streams had only remnant brook trout populations in the headwaters and the main stems where they were stocked. A few brook trout hung on in isolated feeder creeks.

"Now, we're finding more reproduction further downstream and higher densities," Engel says. "It doesn't mean the streams are 100 percent healed, but they're getting to the point where you're seeing profound changes."

The renaissance is occurring for many of the same reasons as in southwestern Wisconsin: changes in land use and farming practices, and recovery from the erosion and streambank destruction suffered during early logging in the area. Other factors, including flood control projects in headwaters have decreased the frequency and severity of floods, and increased annual precipitation since the 1950s.

Fish surveys of waters in those counties revealed trout populations, and 179 miles of streams were newly classified as trout waters. Another 134 miles of streams already classified as trout waters were upgraded last year.

Perhaps most encouraging and most profound is the decreased reliance on stocking. Engel has been able to reduce the number of stocked streams from 50 to 20 since the surveys revealed self-sustaining trout populations in waters not previously thought to contain them.

"It's a money saver, and it's a success story when wild species are coming back," he says.

"Some of the streams we have will always be degraded and require stocking," Engel notes. "But for the majority of my area, the overall goal is reducing our dependence on stocking and restoring wild fisheries. We're already heading that way big time."

Lisa Gaumnitz writes about outdoor issues and environmental policies for DNR's Water Division.