Conservation of fish and wildlife resources in the 21 century must overcome at least two major hurdles. The first is the mismatch between species ranges and administrative boundaries. Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) help overcome this obstacle by bringing together federal and state agencies with non-governmental organizations to address conservation problems at population-relevant scales. The second hurdle is developing adaptation strategies to manage species in the face of uncertain future conditions. In the Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks (GCPO) LCC, we are working to provide baseline habitat assessments and projections of habitat impacts due to climate, urbanization, sea-level rise and other drivers. Further, we are evaluating the likely impacts of those changes on the sustainability of species populations. This presentation will review the GCPO LCC’s aquatic habitat framework, assessment of baseline conditions, and projections of future change. We will highlight projects producing new decision support tools, including our approach to characterize flow conditions and simulate potential flow conditions under climate and land use change scenarios. Outputs of these models and assessments provide foundational data sets for estimating how risks to aquatic populations vary across the GCPO LCC region, as well as to identify and evaluate strategies to address those risks.
Habitat alterations associated with population growth and subsequent increases in demand for water in the Edwards Plateau Ecoregion of Texas have resulted in declines in several native fish species including Guadalupe Bass, a popular and economically important sport fish. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) has implemented watershed-based conservation efforts to restore Guadalupe Bass populations and their associated aquatic communities including the Guadalupe Bass Restoration Initiative and establishment of Native Fish Conservation Areas. Additionally, TPWD recently developed a 10-year conservation plan for Guadalupe Bass identifying priority populations at a sub-basin level. Because Guadalupe Bass uses a broad range of habitats across life stages and has direct associations with other imperiled species, conservation efforts directed at Guadalupe Bass will benefit the native fish communities as a whole within these systems. Efforts guided by the Guadalupe Bass conservation plan will utilize regional conservation partnerships and local, grassroots conservation groups to deliver on-the-ground conservation through supporting and conducting watershed assessments, organizing outreach efforts to local landowners, providing technical guidance and assistance to landowners to implement best management practices, and will focus on restoring and enhancing Guadalupe Bass habitats through management of riparian areas and uplands rather than direct manipulation of instream habitats.
Historically, the Brazos River spanned eight ecoregions on its 2,060 km journey from New Mexico, through the heart of Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico. This prairie stream ecosystem supports over 60 fish species including two endangered cyprinids. Sixteen major reservoirs control streamflow and create distinct, disconnected fragments. Long-term ecological studies have provided a strong science foundation for guiding water management and watershed conservation. Opportunities to restore and protect environmental flows include informing flow standards, negotiating flow and water level agreements, and identifying surface water permits and groundwater rights with high conservation value. Riparian management, including implementation of best management practices and control of invasive saltcedar in the upper Brazos watershed, not only seeks to improve habitat for fish and wildlife but also to improve base flows. Barriers (e.g., road-crossings, drying, and dams) hinder successful recruitment, migration, and recolonization of prairie fishes. Ongoing research seeks to identify stream reaches most threatened by drying where aquifer pumping may reduce groundwater inflows to streams, especially during dry times. Removal and mitigation of barriers, as appropriate, will be critical to restoring ecological functions and connectivity. Propagation and repatriation efforts are also underway to support native fish conservation and recovery in the Brazos River.
In 2015, the Little Tennessee River watershed became the nation’s first Native Fish Conservation Area (NFCA). NFCAs are watersheds that are managed for the conservation and restoration of native fish and other aquatic species, allowing compatible uses.
The Little Tennessee River watershed spans three states (Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee) and features a diverse set of aquatic habitats, from high elevation coldwater trout streams to warmwater rivers to large reservoirs. Historically, it was one of the more biologically rich watersheds in the nation, but aquatic communities have been impacted by a host of stressors, including dams, agriculture, industrial pollutants, piscicides and development. Some streams impacted in the past now offer restoration opportunity, and numerous efforts are underway to restore native fish to streams on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on US Forest Service land, on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians reservation and on private lands.
More than twenty-five organizations, including federal and state agencies, industry, and non-government entities, form the Native Fish Conservation Partnership (NFCP). The NFCP supports work already underway by partners by providing additional funding, public exposure, and a mechanism for collaboration. It implements educational initiatives, including a snorkeling education program, a riparian education and restoration initiative, and a video project, which will result in a series of Freshwaters Illustrated videos on the biodiversity of the Little Tennessee River basin, the importance of clean water to industry, agriculture, and recreation, restoration efforts and the importance of river stewardship.
Perhaps most importantly, the NFCP provides a forum to plan and implement watershed conservation on a landscape scale. Partners are developing an on-line mapping platform, which will be used to house data, map threats, identify focal areas for restoration and protection and ultimately serve as a conservation plan for the watershed.