It's a pretty fish, as fish go, and one as old as the hills that buffer its unsullied streams in Central and Western Maryland. The brook trout is a keeper, said Scott Scarfone, who is determined it stays that way.
"It's the only native trout found in Maryland and it was here before the glaciers," said Scarfone, of Westminster. "The brook trout has an incredible history, durability and beauty about it. It's a jewel, a diamond. For fishermen, it is God."
That it is also an environmentally sensitive fish that goes belly-up at the first sign of danger has made its survival a mission for Scarfone, coordinator of the Upper Gunpowder Watershed Brook Trout Conservation Partnership. Three centuries of deforestation, poor agricultural practices and other man-made ills have warmed and muddied streams, reducing the fish's population by 90 percent along the Eastern Seaboard, its natural habitat, conservationists say.
"Each native species plays a role in the matrix of keeping the environment healthy, and we can't fully comprehend the ramifications that eliminating one species has, up and down the food chain," Scarfone said. "Create holes in that chain and it may explode in ways we don't yet understand."
To that end, he and others at the Maryland Chapter of Trout Unlimited have cobbled together a network of agencies and organizations to protect the Upper Gunpowder Watershed, one of the last remaining hotbeds of the cold-water fish in the state. On board, among others, are the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the Prettyboy Watershed Alliance and the state's Inland Fisheries Management Division.
Their goal: to maintain that 38-square mile area, in northern Carroll and Baltimore counties, with its 60 miles of streams that are home to one-fourth of Maryland's brook trout. Only the Savage River Watershed, in Garrett County, boasts more fish.
"This cluster of streams [in the Gunpowder] is one of the last Eastern outposts of brook trout that isn't in the Appalachian Mountains," said Mark Staley, central region manager for Inland Fisheries. "This is an iconic fish, a relic of our pre-colonial past — and what we have here is a pretty vibrant population, considering how much the landscape has been altered."
There's the rub. Much of the land in the watershed is privately owned and farmed. The Partnership, formed last year, plans to meet with landowners and coax them into tweaking their terrain to make it more eco-friendly for brook trout. Reforestation and restoration of stream banks are examples.
They expect to meet some resistance, Scarfone said.
"People don't like the idea of others suggesting what they should do with their property," he said. "Asking them to take 50 feet of agricultural land out of production may be seen as having a negative impact on their income. We're not trying to sweet-talk them but to educate them that what we're doing, potentially, makes their land more valuable."
For instance, brook trout cannot survive in water rife with sedimentation or temperatures higher than 68 degrees, Scarfone said.
"This fish is the canary in the coal mine," Scarfone said. "Knowing you have a piece of land pristine enough to sustain brook trout tells you that the environment is fairly pure and intact. People see value in that."
Different landowners might ascribe to different options, he said.
"Putting logs in streams, so fish can hide under them, creates a livable habitat. If there's no cover, what's to stop a blue heron from zapping in there and picking them out of the water?" Scarfone said.
Ben Larson, tree planting program manager for the Prettyboy Watershed Alliance, has found success in reaching out to a number of landowners.
"One person may want more trees for privacy, or firewood, or so as not to mow as much lawn," Larson said.
Planting oaks and sycamores along a streambed cools the water and makes both landowner and trout happy. Moreover, oak leaves rot slowly and inhibit soil erosion.
"One landowner, a hunter, wants to plant a habitat for deer. Well, pines and hemlocks keep their needles, provide a thermal cover and protect wildlife from the cold in winter," Larson said. "In truth, I see myself as a matchmaker. Our flexibility is a great advantage; we don't have to do things in set ways.
"Some of these folks don't even know they have brook trout [on their land], but they're happy to learn they are a positive ecological indicator. These fish are the blue crabs of the uplands, and people should be proud to have them. It proves they've done a good job of protecting the watershed."