Why CRP works for trout and other freshwater fish
The national Conservation Reserve Program is 30! The CRP was signed into law by President Reagan as part of the Farm Bill on December 23, 1985, to help agricultural producers to voluntarily conserve soil, water, and wildlife. The TRCP and our partners are celebrating the 30th anniversary of CRP throughout 2016, by highlighting the successes of this popular bipartisan program—regarded by many as the greatest private lands conservation initiative in U.S. history. Here on our blog, we’re devoting a series of posts to the critters that have seen tremendous habitat benefits: upland birds, wild turkeys, waterfowl, and freshwater fish. CRP works for wildlife, and it works for sportsmen.
On this blog, we’ve written a lot about the Conservation Reserve Program and how it benefits wildlife. Because the program incentivizes landowners to use their land for conservation instead of for crops, it makes sense that a lot of the program’s results would visible on the landscape itself, where pheasants, turkeys, ducks, and the other wildlife benefit from upland and wetland cover. But CRP is also working beneath the surface, and improved water quality downstream is giving brookies and other fish a serious boost.
CRP enhances the watershed
In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, anglers are counting on a CRP initiative known as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), which targets high priority conservation projects on a local, rather than a national, level. Federal resources for CREP are often augmented by the state where the project takes place, meaning more funding is available for landowners to implement conservation.
The various Chesapeake Bay watershed states each have their own version of CREP, but they share a goal of helping to “Save the Bay,” which has been degraded over time by runoff from agriculture, industry, and cities. All throughout the watershed, landowners are voluntarily enrolling thousands of acres along waterways large and small to help make the Bay fishable and swimmable.
When it comes to agricultural land, one of the most important things the CREP can do is keep cattle out of farm streams by paying farmers to build fences. When they wade around and into the water, cows eat the plants that shade banks and provide cover for critters and insects. Plus, cattle hooves quickly erode stream banks, allowing farm nutrients and sediment to flow into the water. Cows also defecate in the water, further affecting the biology of the stream.
The end result is terrible for native fish like brook trout. Lack of shade can dramatically raise the temperature of the water, which, aside from generally causing fish stress, lowers oxygen levels. Where trout spawn, heavy sediment and cow pies turn gravelly stream beds to muck, making it impossible for fish to lay their eggs. Brookies need consistently cold, clear water with a high level of dissolved oxygen to live, feed, and reproduce, but cow pasture streams tend to be hot, muddy, and suffocating.
That’s why groups like Trout Unlimited have rallied around a special CREP effort in the headwaters of the Potomac River, which flows into Chesapeake Bay. The resources that TU can deliver to farmers through CREP are often greater than what other state or federal conservation programs can offer, which means the infrastructure these projects create, like fences and bridges, is often higher quality and has a long shelf life—often as long as a 10- to 15-year CREP contract. And because CREP offers a rental payment for each acre of land taken out of agricultural production, farmers can afford to commit more acres of streamside land to the program and place cow fences further back from the stream bank—at least 35 feet, but sometimes as much as 300 feet on both sides. Given this room to breathe, floodplains can replenish the natural ecosystem over time.
Aside from fencing for cattle, TU’s dedication to this program has helped farmers to plant mature trees and native grasses along waterways, stabilizing the banks and providing the shade that is absolutely critical to regulating water temperature. Cooler streams are more fishable. And Chesapeake Bay farmers want that as much as anglers do.
Healthy Systems, Not Just Healthy Pools
Many farmers have inherited land from family, and they remember their grandfathers teaching them to fish on a particular bank—they want to be able to teach their grandchildren to do the same, and maybe reclaim a little bit of their own childhood in the process. To date, tens of thousands of acres of stream buffers have been applied throughout the watershed, and brookies are returning as a result. Of course, privately-owned stream banks, no matter how well restored, may not be accessible for most anglers in the region. But every step in conservation is incremental, and the impacts multiply both upstream and downstream.
Restored headwaters, even if they are private, serve as spawning grounds and nurseries for the entire river system. Work that has been done over the last twenty years has helped to restore large, healthy populations of native brook trout to the system, greatly reducing the need to stock the streams each spring. These native trout tend to grow larger, live longer, and travel farther than their stocked cousins. In fact, they have been tracked swimming from their West Virginia headwaters to popular public fishing areas like Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the Potomac River flowing straight through Washington, D.C. Of course, each restored acre will ensure that those downstream waters will be cooler and cleaner, too, thanks to the fast-flowing, gravelly headwaters upstream.
Programs like CREP incentivize healthy systems, not just isolated healthy pools, and brook trout are an indicator of that health. If a headwater stream has brookies, the top-level native aquatic predator, its river banks will also have good habitat for a variety of wildlife and be full of fish food like frogs, mayflies, and crickets. There will be sufficient shade from mature trees, and the stream bed will be gravelly and have places for young fish to hide. The CRP, with its local habitat enhancement program, can’t accomplish this alone, but it is certainly an important tool for helping farmers and landowners to do the right thing for fish and sportsmen.