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U.S. Forest Service restores fish passage in Western North Carolina

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Visitors to Santeetlah Creek on the Nantahala National Forest will no longer see a concrete and steel fish barrier stretching across the channel and native fish can once again return to the high-quality habitat found in the creek. (Photo credit: USFS)

Visitors to Santeetlah Creek on the Nantahala National Forest will no longer see a concrete and steel fish barrier stretching across the channel and native fish can once again return to the high-quality habitat found in the creek.

Flowing from the Snowbird Mountains and Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Santeetlah Creek was once home to several native aquatic species.

"Creatures like the hellbender and tangerine darters were some of the more fascinating species and evidence suggests that the Cherokee people once fished for redhorse in these waters," said Jason Farmer, fisheries biologist for the Cheoah Ranger District. "Today Santeetlah Creek lacks many of the species that once swam its cool, clear waters."

Biologists have noted that the current fish community of Santeetlah Creek is less diverse than other streams in the surrounding area.

Unfortunately, this lack of diversity is a relic of past management which eliminated native species.

A concrete fish barrier was constructed in the mid-1960s to prevent native fish (known as "rough fish") from swimming upstream into Santeetlah Creek.

The creek was then poisoned upstream of the barrier to remove the native fish and subsequently restocked with non-native rainbow and brown trout.

This treatment was intended to eliminate competition from the native species for food and space and allow the introduced trout to thrive.

However, monitoring efforts following this treatment showed no long-term benefits to the trout fishery.

The decision to remove the dam was made in consultation with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Prior to dam removal, biologists with the NCWRC, Trout Unlimited, and USFS snorkeled the site to make sure no hellbenders were harmed during the demolition.

Contractors for the U.S. Forest Service began removal of the concrete fish barrier in May.

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