This is the first article in a new section for the website that focuses on conservation news that impacts brook trout in Pennsylvania. The posts in this section are conservation news with commentary/opinion added to connect the conservation projects to their impact on brook trout specifically.
AMD Impacts & Beech Creek
Pennsylvania’s rich coal mining history has left a legacy of polluted waterways across the Commonwealth. The state has numerous waterways impacted by AMD (Acid Mine Drainage) pollution, negatively impacting brook trout. There is a push to remediate many of these polluted waterways thanks to federal infrastructure funding, but questions remain about the biotic future once these projects are completed.
In November 2023, multiple news outlets published stories about AMD remediation efforts on Beech Creek in central Pennsylvania. The Lock Haven Express posted the following article: https://www.lockhaven.com/news/local-news/2023/11/workgroup-sets-it-sights-on-returning-trout-to-beech-creek/ and this information is reinforced on Trout Unlimited’s website here: https://www.tu.org/magazine/conservation/restoration/fishery-lacking-fish-and-abandoned-mine-drainage/
Articles indicate that an AMD workgroup has been established, which is made up of the following organizations: “The group consists of both the Clinton and Centre County Conservation Districts, the Lloyd Wilson Trout Unlimited Chapter, the national Trout Unlimited organization, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation and consultants from Hedin Environmental and Larson Design Group.”
The groups hope to capitalize on the recent Infrastructure Law Abandoned Mine Land legislation, which will infuse much-needed funding into AMD remediation projects (DEP LINK). According to DEP, “The BIL made over $11.2 billion available for national abandoned mine land (AML) programs over the next 15 years. Pennsylvania will receive $244.9 million annually for the next 15 years, or $3.7 billion over the life of the Program, to reclaim eligible pre-1977 AML and to treat abandoned mine drainage.”
The Trout Communities of Beech Creek
According to the Beech Creek Watershed Association website, “Beech Creek, a tributary to the Bald Eagle Creek, is located in Northcentral Pennsylvania. The Beech Creek Watershed consists of 171-square mile area that spans both the Appalachian Plateaus Province and the Ridge and Valley Province.” Beech Creek’s mainstem and several tributaries are polluted by AMD; Sandy Run is the most polluted.
There are several (5) Class A wild brook trout streams that are tributaries to Beech Creek. There are also six tributaries classified as Wilderness Trout Streams, a designation designed to promote native brook trout angling in Pennsylvania. Numerous tributaries are identified as supporting the natural reproduction of trout, though the species composition is not publicly available. There are also currently three stocked trout streams, tributaries to Beech Creek.
Something to note regarding the map above is that only Wolf Run is listed as a stocked trout stream on the state’s interactive trout fishing map (LINK). However, a cooperative nursery also stocks Eddy Lick Run and South Fork Beech Creek. Unfortunately, 2022 stocking data for Eddy Lick Run and South Fork Beech Creek is not publicly available, and details like the number, species, or stocking frequency were not provided. Data from 2021 showed that most fish stocked in Eddy Lick and the South Fork Beech Creek were yearling rainbows. However, Eddy Lick and South Fork Beech Creek also received yearling brown trout. Stocking data for Wolf Run indicates that the stream receives one in-season stocking of rainbow trout.
Beech Creek flows into Bald Eagle Creek below Foster Joseph Sayers Lake in Center County. While this section of Bald Eagle is below the lake, it is still classified as Natural Reproduction for trout. Additionally, it is not far (roughly seven river miles) from Fishing Creek, a Class A brown trout stream that empties into Bald Eagle Creek near Mill Hall. In addition to Bald Eagle Creek, Marsh Creek, directly southwest of Beech Creek, is stocked with brown, rainbow, and golden rainbow trout. Also, interestingly, the Romola Branch of Marsh Creek is classified as a Class A brown trout stream. Note that both streams flow into Bald Eagle Creek with their confluences less than a mile apart. Still, only the tributaries to Marsh Creek (further upstream) have Class A brown trout tributaries, while Beech Creek only has brook trout tributaries.
As stated, AMD pollution is a serious problem in Pennsylvania. The pollution impacts humans and terrestrial wildlife in addition to fish. Remediating AMD serves the greater good and benefits everyone in the state. We all must do as much as possible to reduce or eliminate the impacts of AMD, and it’s clear that there is a concerted effort among several organizations and agencies to do just that, not just on Beech Creek but across the Commonwealth.
One of the less discussed issues with AMD remediation is the biotic effect the remediation may have on trout communities. AMD-polluted 3rd and 4th-order streams can insulate or isolate brook trout communities in the headwaters. Depending on the pollution level (low pH, high conductivity from dissolved metals, and elevated CO2), AMD-impaired waters function as a seasonal barrier to a complete barrier to the ingress of trout species from outside the polluted watershed.
This isolation can negatively impact brook trout communities in the headwaters if enough of the streams are isolated into small, disconnected populations. If a catastrophic event causes the population of a stream to be extirpated without a connection to another population, that population is lost forever. Additionally, isolated populations are bad for genetic diversity, which may help the fish gain valuable tools to survive adverse conditions like warming or disease.
However, brown trout have been proven to displace brook trout throughout Pennsylvania. While the isolation (or insulation in this case) prevents brook trout from reaching other brook trout, it also prevents nonnative brown trout from infesting the brook trout streams. So, the lack of connectivity is both a blessing and a curse if there are no regulations or efforts to prevent the mixing of species.
In Montana, fish barriers are used to prevent species from mixing. Ironically, the barriers are often constructed to prevent non-native brook trout from infesting native cutthroat streams. Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks has a page dedicated to nonnative fish removal and fish passage barrier projects: https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/fisheries-management/removal-projects
Good work with a bit of Caution
I commend the agencies and NGOs working hard to remediate AMD in Pennsylvania. This work is desperately needed for a multitude of reasons. These are monumental tasks, and we finally have the federal funding to make these projects a reality. However, I have seen a severe lack of attention to the biotic issues that will surely arise once these projects are completed. Fish passage barriers should be a part of the solution, especially where watersheds lack the presence of non-native species in the headwaters. Beech Creek, along with other AMD-impacted streams/rivers in Pennsylvania, presents a unique opportunity to protect native brook trout while improving water quality for fish, wildlife, and communities downstream. Someone needs to lead that charge, though. The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission should prioritize species separation like Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.