Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Nantahala restores native fish habitat

NORTH CAROLINA — Santeetlah Creek on Nantahalah National Forest 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 Cheoah Ranger District.

Now Santeetlah Creek lacks many of the species that once swam its cool, clear waters. Unfortunately, this lack of diversity is a relic of past management that 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.

Biologists have noted that the current fish community of Santeetlah Creek is less diverse than other streams in the surrounding area, but that should change now. As part of a 10-year project to connect aquatic habitat across the National Forests in North Carolina, the fish barrier has been removed. The decision to remove the dam was made in consultation with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Prior to dam removal in May, Forest Service, NCWRC and Trout Unlimited biologists snorkeled the site to make sure no hellbenders would be harmed during the demolition. After the dam was removed, follow-up work was needed to naturalize the area. The project was completed in September.

Today, thanks to the efforts of staff and partners, visitors will no longer see the drab 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: Creek cascades over a dam in the midst of forest.
A view of Santeetlah Creek’s dam in May, before work was done by the Forest Service and other groups to remove it. Forest Service photo by Jason Farmer.
Photo: creek flows freely over rocks in the midst of lush forest.
Santeetlah Creek after the work done by the Forest Service and others to help reintroduce native fish populations to the waters. Forest Service photo by Jason Farmer.