September 16, 2020|By Tom Duffus| Wildlife

The Conservation Fund's Purchase of Pleasant River Headwaters Forest Gives Hope to Endangered Atlantic Salmon and Brook Trout

The Conservation Fund’s 2019 acquisition of the 27,000-acre Pleasant River Headwaters Forest created the opportunity to restore connectivity for fish passage in the Penobscot River Watershed, building on long-standing efforts of our partner, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), on their adjacent 75,000 acres. The Fund now owns and manages the Pleasant River Headwaters Forest—buying time for AMC to raise the funds to acquire it. 

The West Branch of the Pleasant River near Silver Lake in Piscataquis County, Maine. Near Greenville.Photo by Jerry Monkman.

This spring, the state of Maine began “seeding” the streams on our purchase with Atlantic salmon eggs, and efforts are underway to fix blockages in the streams. The extraordinary return of Atlantic salmon to the critically important, vast watershed habitat of interior Maine is especially important since it is the first time in 180 years that salmon can reach these historic spawning waters 120 miles inland. 

Despite their name, Atlantic salmon do not always live in the saltwater ocean. A member of the trout family, these fish migrate to inland freshwater streams to spawn, and then return to the ocean. In Maine, wild Atlantic salmon are now spawning in native fresh waters within an assemblage of large properties, far from the ocean, as a result of a collaboration between the Fund and AMC, along with many others, building on heroic efforts downstream by so many. 

8 31 20 Salmon restoration map

A key obstacle for fish and other aquatic organisms was overcome through the Penobscot River Restoration Project. This several-year effort removed dams and created a massive bypass to allow fish to get around the Howland Dam and access spawning grounds in the Pleasant River watershed. This critical breakthrough, and efforts to fix stream blockages from impassable road culverts, has brought Atlantic salmon back to the 100-Mile Wilderness and AMC’s and the Fund’s properties at the top of the watershed.

8 31 20 Salmon Restoration blog c Steven TatkoPhoto by Steven Tatko.

Further, many of Maine’s streams had undergone heavy modification over centuries of log driving, and later, logging road construction. Many waterways were cleared of natural obstacles, like dead trees and branches, so the logs could float freely. This may have been great for a successful log drive, but it does not provide the right habitat for brook trout and Atlantic salmon. Restoring stream structure can include adding felled trees and root balls back into the water to get the habitat back to a more natural state—providing shade, in-stream nooks and crannies for fish to hide, and eddies where current slows. This effort is being conducted in collaboration with AMC, Trout Unlimited and the State of Maine.

The Pleasant River watershed, part of the upper reaches of the Penobscot River watershed, is particularly important since 90% of the wild stocks of Eastern brook trout habitat can be found in the state of Maine. And in Maine, 90% of that habitat is in the Pleasant River headwaters area. It’s one of the few places where it is possible to conceive of preserving an entire watershed—from the top to the sea. 

8 31 20 Salmon restoration image001A brook trout taken from streams on AMC property. Photo by Steven Tatko.

The watershed is on its way to being fully reconnected and healthy enough for spawning restoration practices on a landscape scale. Maine’s Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has been planting Atlantic salmon eggs in the West and Middle Branches of the Pleasant River since 2016. In late March 2020, DMR staff conducted the first egg planting operations on the property currently owned by the Fund—releasing 170,000 eggs at three locations in the Middle Branch of the Pleasant River. 

8 31 20 Salmon Restoration blog 2 c Steven TatkoPhoto by Steven Tatko.

This truly is a global conservation project, as the Atlantic salmon that spawn in the Penobscot Watershed spend the other half of their lives off the coast of Greenland. Egg planting on the West Branch of the Pleasant in 2016 resulted in the presence in 2020 of sea run salmon females and their offspring over-wintering in the river above Silver Lake—the first known instance of this in over a century. 

This is a story of hope, and the positive reality that comes about from the thoughtful conservation of lands in the right places. We are grateful to the Appalachian Mountain Club for its effort on all of our behalf.

Written By

Tom Duffus

Tom Duffus has worked in land conservation since 1985, conserving over 550,000 acres of land and raising significant sums of private, mitigation and public funds for land conservation. He has extensive experience conserving forestland as well as farm, recreation, endangered species and wilderness lands, and is an experienced conservation easement practitioner. As Vice President and Northeast Director, Tom provides leadership for The Conservation Fund's land conservation work in the northeastern United States, including Maine and New York.