Volunteers strive to take back a Wisconsin trout stream

Sep 20 2010 - 4:36pm

EAGLE, Wis. -- A mighty bur oak towers over the prairie in the Scuppernong River Habitat Area.

At about 60 feet in height and 12 feet in circumference, the tree has likely witnessed more than two centuries of history.

If only it could talk, the stories it could tell: the years natural wildfires swept the prairie, invigorating the ecosystem; the era when nearby springs bubbled forth and ran cold and free in streams; the time of settlement by European immigrant farmers, marked by plowing the prairie and ditching and draining of the wetlands; and more recently, when the fields and waters in its midst have been increasingly restored to their native states.

On a recent late-summer Saturday, the tree would have noted the return of an industrious group of familiar faces intent on bolstering the latest trend.

It's a workday coordinated by Southeast Wisconsin Trout Unlimited, the Milwaukee-based chapter of the international cold-water conservation organization.

As the early-morning sun highlighted the golden grasses and yellow flowers on the prairie, 65 SEWTU volunteer members and friends gathered to tackle four ambitious projects.

One group grabbed hammers and saws to construct LUNKERS, wood and steel structures that help stabilize stream banks and provide habitat for fish.

Another wielded rakes and pulled piles of elodea, an invasive aquatic plant, from Paradise Creek. The fast-growing exotic not only displaces natives; it clogs streams, resulting in slower flows and higher water temperatures.

A third walked the prairie and collected seeds of native plants such as yellow coneflower, mountain mint, bergamot, blazing star and Indian grass.

And yet another "elite SWAT team" hiked a mile to a remote stretch of the Scuppernong River to disassemble several beaver dams that blocked the flow.

"What's your pleasure?" asked Henry Klotz, president of SEWTU, as the groups formed and disembarked from the Department of Natural Resources fisheries building.

The work is part of a multiyear SEWTU project to help restore the Scuppernong River, Paradise Creek and surrounding habitats.

Among the most impressive aspects: 2 miles of the Scuppernong River is being moved from its current, unnatural ditch and returned to its natural stream bed.

The river's original course was determined from aerial photography and inspections by DNR personnel.

"We'll be helping to move the river back where it belongs," Koltz said.

This is what passes as a "party" for SEWTU.

As is its habit, the group has invited guests. A handful of members from two Illinois TU chapters, Gary Borger and Oakbrook, are on hand.

Jacob Kievit, a Boy Scout working on his Eagle project, has brought a group of 10 to help gather prairie seeds.

Several DNR personnel are helping, too.

The volunteers could all be doing something else on a perfect late-summer Saturday. Fishing comes to mind.

But here they are, depositing sweat equity in the Scuppernong account.

"When we come, we tend to bring an army," said Dan Asmus, SEWTU past president.

"Their turnout is phenomenal," said Ben Heussner, DNR fisheries biologist. "This level of commitment is unprecedented for Waukesha County."

Scuppernong River Habitat Area is a 2,013-acre property in Waukesha County. It consists of wetlands, wet prairie, mesic prairie, hardwood forest and several creeks.

The property is located within the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Southern Unit.

Scuppernong contains the largest wet prairie east of the Mississippi River.

Though the area is well-known for its springs, the creeks they formed degraded over time. The 50-degree water that once housed native brook trout was forced through channelized banks or held back by dams.

Projects over the last two decades, most conducted by SEWTU, have attempted to restore the creeks to their original condition.

Since the project started on the Scuppernong River, water temperatures have dropped. As a result, the river was recommended for delisting from the state's list of Impaired Waters in 2007.

The river now meets its designated use as a cold-water stream and its capability in supporting a reproducing trout population, according to the DNR.

Though based in Milwaukee, SEWTU has organized work parties on waters in much of the state. The chapter put together the largest work party in the TU Driftless Area Restoration Effort in southwestern Wisconsin, according to Jeff Hastings.

More than 100 LUNKERS were built on Camp Creek in Richland County in one day, said Hastings.

SEWTU also won a national competition for a $65,000 grant in 2008; it applied the money to Camp Creek, too.

The group also has conducted children's fishing clinics, fly-tying classes, a fly-fishing program to benefit military veterans, and doubled its membership (to 617) in the last decade.

The work has not gone unnoticed: SEWTU received the 2009 TU Gold Trout Award, given annually to the international organization's top chapter. TU has about 140,000 members in 400 chapters.

TU has battled an elitist reputation for years; outings like Saturday's and projects like the Scuppernong certainly aren't responsible for such an impression.

The SEWTU mission statement doesn't even mention fishing, much less fly fishing, said chapter president Koltz.

"The projects have become holistic," Koltz said. "We have people get involved who will never wet a line."

The Scuppernong project is designed to benefit more than fish and anglers. The members know that restoring the river corridor will benefit native plants, songbirds and more.

As the river is returned to its former twisting course, the seeds collected today will be planted to help stabilize the new banks.

And maybe, while the old bur oak is still standing, the prairie before it will be bisected with a cold-running stream containing naturally reproducing brook trout.

That's a scene worth repeating.

From Around the Web

  +