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New tool directs more effective actions to restore aquatic habitat

A new online tool will help resource managers identify fish habitat conservation projects that offer the greatest long-term conservation benefit in the face of threats from climate change and development.

In the past, when someone contacted the Habitat Restoration Division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office to pitch a restoration site with the potential to benefit Eastern brook trout, Fish and Wildlife Biologist Sandra Davis would have her work cut out for her before even agreeing to the project.

First, she would gather up of the background information she could access in house to learn about the site, from ownership records to land-use history to species population data.

Then she would gather up a camera, tape measure, and survey rod, and head for the door.

“They might say there are brook trout present, but we always need to go and see for ourselves,” she explained.

Now thanks to a new online decision support tool, Davis can spare herself from an unnecessary trip.

“Before we even get to that step, we can do a quick query to figure out if a project is worth considering without leaving the office” she said.

Developed by environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies with support from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners, the Fish Habitat Decision Support Tool enables users to establish and rank conservation priorities, predict how species like brook trout will fare under various management scenarios, and evaluate long-term conservation benefits in the face of climate change.

The tool can help in targeting aquatic resources from the Midwest to the Atlantic coast -- nearly half of the continental United States. In the Northeast, it has been developed for brook trout in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, river herring and other anadromous fish in Atlantic coastal rivers, and winter flounder in Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay.

“We have always used the best available science to target where we work, but this tool puts all of the information we need right at our fingertips so we can make decisions quickly and strategically,” said Davis.

With limited staff and resources, and increasing threats from development and climate change, it’s not just a matter of convenience. “As practitioners, we face the challenge of figuring out where to implement projects that offer the greatest ecological value,” she said. “We need to be sure we are doing the right things in the right places to support long-term conservation for this species.”

The tool provides that assurance by allowing users to select projects objectively, rather than opportunistically. For starters, it does so by telling them if brook trout are even present at a site based on presence/absence data collected in the field.

But just because a site is home to brook trout today, doesn’t mean it will still be home to brook trout decades from now. With the tool’s built-in “futuring” module, practitioners can create scenarios based on predictions about development and climate change that will help them determine whether or not brook trout will persist at a site as conditions change.

Even if a stream has the potential to provide habitat to a local brook trout population, it doesn’t necessarily make it the best candidate for restoration dollars intended to sustain a robust population into the future. That’s why the tool also includes a module that lets users mix, match, and rank all of the other factors that might influence their decision to invest money on the ground, such as locations of other restoration projects that are underway, proximity to populations centers, and information about upstream influences, such as acid mines.

“Say we are considering a project in a small stream where we know brook trout are present, but the model shows us that there’s is no way we can restore the surrounding watershed enough to support a connected, sustainable brook trout population,” said Davis. That project probably won’t make the cut. Rather than take on a project that will benefit a handful of brook trout today, they can use the tool to identify projects with the potential to benefit the entire species well into the future.

“Ultimately our goal is to create populations that will be self sufficient,” said Davis. “This technology helps us pick projects that will have the greatest long-term impact by targeting areas for dam removal or restoration projects that will increase connectivity between separate populations.”

It can also help them pick projects that will increase connectivity between partners. “We can only do so much individually, so we’re hoping that if different partners and agencies are all using the same tool, we will be able to align priorities in order to leverage both funding and expertise,” said Davis. “We all have our own priority areas, but if we can find places where those areas overlap, we can look for opportunities to work collaboratively and get more done as a result.”

A range of partners are likely to use the tool because it incorporates data that has already been vetted by practitioners in the field, and was developed using their input. FWS and other partners worked closely with Downstream Strategies to make sure that the tool would do be able to do what they needed.

“Over and over again we’ve heard from conservation planners about how hard it is to pin down project sites where you really get the most bang for your buck,” said Fritz Boettner, a Principal Scientist for Downstream Strategies. “The plan we outlined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service was to build something—not just tools, but also methods—that can assist planners in getting over that last hump from great information and local knowledge into effective on-the-ground work.”

Although the nearly three-year process of developing the tool has come to an end, the collaboration is ongoing. In advance of a December workshop on the Fish Habitat Tool held at the Chesapeake Bay Field Office, FWS staff sent Downstream Strategies a list of questions related to using the tool to target specific work priorities.

“For example: How much would we need to increase forest cover in order to increase brook trout numbers in a section of stream leading up to the site of a proposed restoration project?” said Julie Devers, a Fish Biologist at the Maryland Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office.

Downstream Strategies ran the queries ahead of time, and then showed the staff how to do it themselves during the training. Not only did it give staff a sense of what they can do to improve the likelihood of brook trout occupying that particular stream, it reminded them that they always need to be thinking about these projects in the big-picture context. 

“Most of the work we do is at a small scale; we go look at a stream, and decide where we need to plant trees to provide shade, or how much we need to change the bank slope to reduce erosion,” explained Devers. “But we all know you have to consider the watershed scale in order to make meaningful changes,” she said. “This tool can help refocus the actual work we do to contribute to the watershed-level changes needed to benefit species like brook trout.”

The Chesapeake Bay watershed prioritization tool is based on one that Downstream Strategies developed for the Midwestern Fish Habitat Partnership in 2010, so there is precedent for its success. However, there is one important improvement.  While the Midwestern fish habitat assessments were previously only available on a desktop program that required GIS software, the Fish Passage Decision Support Tool provides access to the Chesapeake Bay Tool as well as other assessments completed in the Northeast and Midwest.  The tool is free, web-based, and accessible both to practitioners and the public, making it valuable for communication as well as conservation.

“You might need a science background to understand the nuts and bolts of the tool, but you don’t need a degree in fisheries to see the connections on a map,” said Davis.  

“We can show people visually that if we improve a certain area, we predict others areas will change for the better too,” she said, adding that good conditions for brook trout mean good conditions for associated species as well, including people. “The added benefits are clean water, less erosion, and more attractive streams for everyone.”

To access the Fish Habitat Decision Support Tool, visit www.fishhabitattool.org/

To learn how to use it, tune into a free webinar hosted by the North Atlantic LCC on Wednesday, March 9th, at 1:00 pm: http://northatlanticlcc.org/news/webinar-fish-habitat-decision-support-tool



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