Sucker River 2010

St Louis County

St Louis County

This project was completed in 2011. Here is a short post-completion summary: 

Historic logging activity degraded this stream reach by removing logjams, large cover logs and boulders from the stream channel, and altering the hydrology.  As a result, the stream lacked deep pool habitat and overhead cover for adult and juvenile trout.  This relative absence of year-round trout cover and pool habitat is a limiting factor in providing more productive, stable and resilient fisheries in the Sucker River and many North Shore streams.  The project nearly tripled the amount of deep pool habitat and overhead cover by restoring large logs (“large woody debris”) to the channel, and placing rock to scour deeper holes in high water and direct low flows to cover logs.

Several logging cycles have artificially perpetuated a young forest ecosystem which is incapable of naturally replacing this missing large woody debris (LWD) anytime soon.  Natural recruitment of large tree trunks or logs to the stream channel will not begin for another 50 to 75 years.  While the logging of larger trees within the riparian corridor has ceased and a conservation easement will ensure it is not resumed, it will take approximately 50 years before large limbs, and 75 to 100 years before whole trees, again fall into the channel and floodplain.  In 2010 Minnesota Trout Unlimited placed large pine logs, which can last up to 100 years, into the stream channel to scour and maintain pool habitat and provide overhead cover.

Mature second growth forests typically have LWD densities of 10 to15 pieces per 100 feet, and old growth forests have densities exceeding 20 pieces per 100 feet. Before the project, this reach had just 0.25 pieces of LWD per 100 feet, and these few pieces lacked the diameter and length necessary to stay in the reach or provide much cover habitat.  The 50 large logs with intact root wads which MNTU restored to the channel now provide cover for fish and wildlife, encourage channel complexity through scour and deposition, provide refugia for fish during flood events, and reduce the erosive power of storm flows. Large rocks were also returned to the channel and placed to create vortex weirs which sour deep holes during high flows.  Deep pool habitat, a limiting factor for trout populations here, has already increased nearly 300 percent!

3,500 trees of long lived species were planted within the riparian corridor along the Sucker River, including 1,000 in this reach, to provide a natural source of future LWD and long term benefits, including stabilizing the stream channel, curbing erosion and sedimentation, and providing large in-stream woody cover habitat.  Volunteers used matting to keep weed growth down, and caged larger trees to inhibit substantial deer browsing losses.

Partners:  More than 50 individuals volunteered on this project.  Namebini has opened the property to classes and hosted numerous tours of the project, which are educating dozens of landowners, forest managers, fisheries personnel and citizens about the key role of riparian forests in sustaining coldwater fisheries and healthy watersheds.  Dr. Karen Gran (UMD) established a monitoring framework to assess the effectiveness of methods used to create pool habitat.  Ongoing surveys by Dr. Gran and her fluvial geomorphology students will help improve habitat enhancement designs, including for the two additional Sucker River projects which MNTU will undertake in 2012.

Special thanks to MNTU’s many partners, including: Carl & Cindy Haensel; Dr. Karen Gran & the University of MN –Duluth; Gitche Gumee Chapter of TU; Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council; MN Citizens; MNDNR; MN Legislature; Namebini; NRCS; St. Louis County Land Department; US Fish & Wildlife Service; and many Volunteers!

 June 2012


Project Contact

Gary Meier
Area Vice-Chair, North

Project Description
The Sucker River project will restore and enhance year-round adult trout cover and habitat to provide a stable brook trout fishery in this important trout stream. Work includes the placement of woody cover and rock veining along 1,300 feet of river, seeding of disturbed areas with native riparian vegetation, tree planting and fencing to protect plantings in the riparian corridor.

The Sucker River is located in St. Louis County between Duluth and Two Harbors. The project area is approximately 9.5 miles upstream from Lake Superior and offers easy access to the angling public. A year-round adult trout population resides in this section of river, being located upstream of a “barrier” waterfall which prevents the upstream migration of anadromous trout and salmon from Lake Superior. A permanent angling easement exists on the property and for virtually the entire watershed upstream and 1.75 miles downstream. An angler/hiker parking area on the property is also planned.

The amount of year-round adult trout cover and habitat is a limiting factor in providing a stable brook trout fishery on the upper Sucker River. River bends that appear brimming with water in spring may be almost dry in mid summer due to the lack of base flow in most North Shore trout streams. Lack of overhead cover exposes trout to increased predation when they are most vulnerable. The project addresses this issue by adding woody cover along banks and rock veining to direct low winter and summer flows to appropriate cover areas. Eroding banks on the site will be stabilized, and non-native reed canary grass, an invasive species, will be removed. Trees will be harvested on-site for use as “woody debris” (in-stream woody cover). Deciduous tree planting in the riparian corridor, as well as planting of native vegetation in disturbed areas will be conducted. A forest stewardship plan for the surrounding land, designed to protect and improve the coldwater habitat, continues to be implemented on the parcel.

An in-stream and riparian habitat plan was developed which allows Trout Unlimited, the Minnesota DNR and UMD researchers to monitoring of the success of the habitat improvement features of the project.  Project planning, design and permitting began in summer 2009, but in order to protect the early trout spawning activity typical here in far northern Minnesota, actual placement of woody cover, rock veining and other in-stream habitat work was moved to summer 2010.  In-stream habitat work along all 1,300 feet of river should be completed by September 2010.  The removal of invasive plant species, tree planting and fencing are also slated for May 2011, with final wrap up by June 2011.

The majority of the habitat restoration and enhancement work is being funded from the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Volunteers and additional funding is being provided Minnesota Trout Unlimited, the Gitche Gumee Chapter of TU (Duluth), landowner Namebini, and the Minnesota DNR.

Pre-treatment assessment field work completed in July and August 2009:
Relatively little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of various trout habitat improvement techniques in the unique geologic conditions found along Minnesota’s North Shore. Trout Unlimited is always looking for opportunities to increase scientific knowledge and increase the effectiveness of coldwater habitat work undertaken by TU, the Minnesota DNR and other conservation partners. Consequently, this project has been planned and designed not only to immediately increase the amount of year-round adult trout cover (and thereby increase the trout population and angling opportunities), but also as a research tool to increase our knowledge of how to do more effective habitat improvement work in North Shore streams.

The pre-project data collection necessary for this research and assessment was undertaken in July and August of 2009. Both the trout populations and the physical habitat characteristics were initially assessed to gather the base-line data necessary to interpret the data which will be collected through long term monitoring.

In July 2009 Karen Gran, a geology professor from UMD specializing in fluvial geomorphology, led a team of both graduate and undergraduate students as they surveyed a wide variety of parameters of the physical conditions of the river channel. This vital step in the habitat improvement process provides data before any rocks and logs are moved, allowing for comparisons with the finished project down the road. To facilitate future surveying and assessment work, 16 long-term cross sections on the stream were marked and monuments placed. Please examine the several photographs on this page which capture UMD researchers hard at work!

In August 2009 personnel from the Minnesota DNR Duluth Area Fisheries Office surveyed the fish population of a representative reach of the river that will have habitat improvement conducted on it. A three person crew used a boat-based electro fishing unit and covered over 800 feet of river. They found good numbers of wild trout in some sections. Those areas with deeper water and woody debris produced larger fish. The project work will focus on dramatically increasing these types of habitats and we hope that this will eventually lead to a strong increase in trout numbers throughout the study reach. Additional fisheries assessments will take place after the habitat work is completed, and will compare the study reach to another segment of the river where habitat improvement is not being conducted. This “control” reach will be located a substantial distance away from the project site since the positive impacts of the habitat improvements upon the trout population (such as providing critical over-wintering and/or low water cover) are likely to extend a considerable distance outside the project area as trout move in response to seasonal stresses.

September 2010 Update:
The installation of large woody cover, rock veining and other in-stream habitat work was completed in August 2010.  Tree planting, fencing and invasive species removal will be done in May and June of 2011.  Minnesota Trout Unlimited and the Gitche Gumee Chapter of TU are looking for more volunteers to assist with this last piece of the project.  Because we have succeeded in leveraging federal funds on the project (including USDA Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program [WHIP] and the US Fish and Wildlife Service) we anticipate extending the tree planting downstream into other reaches of the river now dominated by invasive reed canary grass.  We are working closely with MNDNR Fisheries personnel to identify the highest priority areas for tree planting.  Planting must wait until the frost is out of the ground next May.  Planting will occur only on lands protected by easements, which easements also guarantee angler access.

A forest stewardship plan is currently being implemented on the surrounding parcel of land.  The in-stream and riparian habitat plan, devised by Interfluve with input from the MNDNR and Trout Unlimited, will allow for monitoring of the success of the habitat improvement features of the project. Under this plan, both trout populations and physical habitat characteristics were initially assessed and will be monitored over time.  Physical assessment of the Sucker River’s geomorphologic conditions is being conducted by UMD Geology Professor Karen Gran. Cross-sectional studies will be conducted again to assess a wide variety of parameters in sixteen locations in the habitat improvement section. Funding for this ongoing research has been provided by UMD’s Center for Community and Regional Research. The Minnesota DNR’s Duluth Area Fisheries office will repeat fish population assessments, using pre-project assessments done in August 2009 as a benchmark.  Clink on the link below for additional details of the in-stream work. View the Site Plan.

This project has been made possible by many dedicated partners. The expertise of heavy equipment operators from Darrel D. Johnson Excavating, Inc, and Mike Zauhar Logging were invaluable.  Interfluve provided on-site construction supervision that was essential to accurate placement of all habitat structures. Special thanks to the MNDNR and the landowner, Namebini, for their considerable contributions to the project!  Most importantly, thanks to Minnesota voters and taxpayers, the Minnesota Legislature and the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council for their wisdom in funding the protection, restoration and enhancement of habitat on this and other coldwater streams, rivers and lakes!