By Joel Hyden & Dustin Burke
Sometimes they come by the hundreds and sometimes they even come by the thousands. They come from all over the country and even all over the world.
We are referring to the recreational sport of off-road riding or “going up on the mountain,” as we call it. Visitors, using their off-highway vehicles (OHVs), otherwise known as ATVs, jeeps and side-by-sides (SxS), are drawn to this area by miles upon miles of roads and riding trails. The trails traverse through the 192,000 acres of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area (NCWMA) in Scott, Anderson, Claiborne, Morgan and Campbell Counties, giving you some of the most incredible views and scenery this wonderful state has to offer.
To most, this is the mecca of the eastern United States, for riders. It is without a doubt a positive attribute for commerce, money, and jobs that the recreation creates for the entire area. The demand and sheer volume of riders has created two specialty wildlife officer positions for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. These officers are called OHV Officers/Wildlife Officers. These positions were created to help manage and assist the massive number of people that now travel and visit NCWMA to ride the property. Along with OHV laws, these officers can enforce other wildlife-related laws and assist other county officers when needed.
With all of the visitors and all of the machines riding on the NCWMA, it sometimes requires a tad bit of a balancing act between public use and wildlife management. We will not be the first nor the last to admit that managing wildlife today is not completely about managing wildlife but just as much the art of managing people.
As wildlife officers, it is part of our job to raise public awareness about how our actions can sometimes have negative impacts on wildlife and their habitats. All of us share the same responsibility to take care of the land and leave it better than we found it — so that one day, our children and grandchildren will have the same, if not better, opportunities to enjoy the outdoors as we did.
One of the many issues that we come across pertains to riders not just crossing from one side of the creek to the other, but instead riding upstream or downstream through the creek for long distances at a time. This would be also considered “riding off trail,” which is prohibited. This activity can be a major source of habitat disruption and destruction, impacting aquatic life and water quality of the area.
Montgomery Fork and the trails that lead to what is widely known as the “Eternal Flame” is a case in point or prime example. Riders must cross a creek in four different places to reach the Eternal Flame. Crossing from one side of the creek to the other is a generally accepted practice that only impacts the fish and other aquatic life in a small area of crossing. Riding upstream and downstream for long distances, however, is an entirely different issue and problem.
Where do the fish and other aquatic life have to go while eight, nine, 15 or so SxSs come all the way up through their home? I would imagine, just the same as if a tornado or hurricane tore through our neighborhoods. They have absolutely nowhere to go. While you are “tearing up through” the creek, although seemingly fun, ultimately you are disrupting habitat, changing water quality, and harming the organisms that thrive in the waters and bottoms of that creek!
The riders that we mostly encounter are always willing to do whatever they can to make NCWMA a better place. I have to believe that if some riders just stopped and thought about the impacts that riding up and down the creek are having on fish and other wildlife that they would change their ways. In a time where knowledge is gained at the tips of our fingers and immediately, there is still knowledge to be learned and passed on. More times than not, “change” always takes off with knowledge and learning.
Montgomery Fork is home to numerous species of fish. Some of these fish are of your common variety and plentiful in numbers. A few of these fish are becoming rare and close to being gone from the wonderful state of Tennessee. Its creek banks are home to snapping turtles, many different salamanders and frogs, and other reptiles and amphibians. Deer, elk, turkey, and the occasional black bear use the creek and the woods nearby for food, water, and shelter.
In the early summer of 2020, the TWRA fisheries crews sampled Montgomery Fork. In their studies, they came across populations of many species of fish, but there were three that really caught their attention: the Emerald Darter, Redlips Darter, and Rosyface Shiners. These three fish are or have been listed as “threatened” or” in need of management” in the State Of Tennessee. Since that survey in 2020, the Rosyface shiner has recently been taken off the “in need of management” list because its numbers have remained stable in other areas. With that being said, without proper management, this fish can fall back onto the list again.
With a little research, one will be proud to know the Redlips Darter — a threatened species — is found in the Cumberland River drainages throughout the Big South Fork River & Recreational Area and the NCWMA (Scott, Morgan, and Anderson Counties) and some in south-central Kentucky. The populations are not throughout the area, but instead are heavily fragmented and isolated due to the construction of reservoirs.
The Emerald Darter — a species in need of management — resides in the same places as its counterpart, the redlips Darter, except their population is spread out a little more and not as isolated. The major problem with the Emerald Darter, changes in its habitat can cause drastic changes in the population. Other than a picture that may be in this article or on the almighty google search, most of us may never see one of these fish, even if it was right beside our foot in the water. At first glance, these fish might not even seem important, but these little fish play a big role in their respectable habitats.
We shall all do our part to spread the message and to be aware of the damage we can do by destroying habitat and littering! Protecting streams, such as the streams in and around Montgomery Fork, should be a priority to not just us as wildlife officers, not just the visitors and riders that use NCWMA, but to everyone that lives in the state of Tennessee.
Wildlife officers also want to remind all riders on the NCWMA that it is illegal to operate any off-highway vehicle off of designated roads or trails on any wildlife management area. Driving off designated roads and designated trails into woods, fields and utility rights of way is prohibited. No disturbance of wildlife is permitted. Those who choose to do operate “off trails” will be subject to prosecution. The TWRA is in the business of managing wildlife and fisheries, but none of that management would be possible without the great people that not only live in this wonderful state, but the visitors who choose to come here! Help Us Help You!
Joel Hyden and Dustin Burke are Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency law enforcement officers assigned to the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area. For more information about off-highway riding on the NCWMA, see tn.gov/twra/gis-maps/north-cumberland-ohv-riding-area.html