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Pigeon River (North Carolina & Tennessee)

Pigeon River Topography

The headwaters of the Pigeon River are located at Sam Knob on Black Mountain, at an elevation of approximately 6130 feet. Sam Knob is 30 miles southwest of Asheville, North Carolina. The river flows from Sam Knob north to Canton, North Carolina. Blue Ridge Paper Products, Inc. is located on the river in Canton. The Pigeon River flows through the papermill at Canton and then along Interstate 40 for approximately 25 river miles to Waterville and the Progress Energy Hydroelectric Dam.

From Canton to Waterville, the elevation changes from 2580 to 2258 feet. A small bypass channel curves around the dam and runs 12.5 river miles before merging with the water being released from the dam aquaducts at the Tennessee State Line. The Pigeon River then flows 4.5 river miles to Hartford, Tennessee. The elevation at Hartford is about 1260 feet. This 160 foot drop in river elevation produces class III and IV rapids.

Progress Energy and the 12 Hartford white-water rafting companies work together to plan recreational water releases from the Waterville Dam for rafting. After passing through Hartford, the Pigeon flows through Denton (1800 ft) and Newport (1040 ft), Tennessee. The Pigeon empties into the French Broad River at an elevation of about 1000 feet. Due to these elevational changes, the Pigeon River is divided into two regions or ecoregions; a high gradient stream from Sam Knob to around Denton, Tennessee and a low gradient stream from Newport, Tennessee to the French Broad River.

A Brief History of the Pigeon River

A papermill was established in Canton, North Carolina on the Pigeon River in the early 1900's. The mill has been operated in that locality for about 100 years. After 1983, Champion Paper began to upgrade the papermill to reduce emissions going into the river. Blue Ridge Paper Products, Inc. bought out Champion and completed the upgrades in equipment and the reductions in emissions based on EPA criteria. Blue Ridge Paper is an employee-owned and operated facility and has spent millions of dollars to upgrade the papermill. This corporation continues researching methods to increase efficiency and reduce any adverse impacts on the Pigeon River.

UTK Fisheries began working with Blue Ridge Paper in 2001. A plan was launched to reintroduce native non-game fish species into the Pigeon near Newport, Tennessee. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), Water Pollution Control Division provided advice and assistance in collecting and relocating fish into the Pigeon River. In early 2004, the fish reintroduction project was expanded into North Carolina with the aid of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Native Fish Reintroductions

After 1993, the Pigeon River water quality and water clarity improved. Larger, native fish species were then able to recolonize the Pigeon River from its tributaries. The river was surveyed yearly for fish species by TVA, TWRA and TDEC-WPC. These organizations realized that several of the smaller native fish species had not returned to the Pigeon. In 2001, in conjunction with UTK Fisheries, US Fish & Wildlife Service, USGS and Blue Ridge Paper, these Tennessee state agencies put together a list of native, non-game fish species missing from the Pigeon River.

The first species of fish to be collected and relocated were the Bluebreast Darter, Blueside Darter and Gilt Darter. And in 2002, additional species were added; Stargazing Minnow and Mountain Madtom (small catfish). In 2003, the Stripetail Darter and the non-parasitic American Brook Lamprey and Mountain Brook Lamprey were also collected for relocation into the Pigeon River.

In 2004, with financial support from Blue Ridge Paper Products, the Pigeon River Restoration Project was expanded to include the Upper Pigeon River in North Carolina. The project team met in March 2004 and invited the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to participate. An additional list of missing fish from North Carolina's half of the Pigeon River was assembled. Efforts to relocate Saffron Shiners, Mirror Shiners, Silver Shiners and Telescope Shiners began soon after this meeting. UTK Fisheries and TDEC-WPC headed up the collection efforts. NCWRC assisted in the collections and relocations of these shiners to the Pigeon River a few miles downstream from the papermill.

Native Freshwater Mussel & Snail Reintroductions

Native freshwater snails (1996) and mussels (2000) were reintroduced into the Pigeon River near Newport, Tennessee. From 2000-2004, about 20,000 individuals from 3 snail genera were released; Io, Pleurocera, Leptoxis. The latter two genera are reproducing and spreading downstream in the Pigeon. Also during the past few years, around 200 individuals from 9 different mussel species have been reintroduced. The common names for these 9 species are the Elktoe, Threeridge, Purple Pimpleback, Spike, Wavyrayed Lampmussel, Plain Pocketbook, Kidneyshell, Pimpleback and Creeper. The life cycle of the mussel requires a host fish species to carry the free-living mussel larvae. Studies need to be conducted to determine if mussel reproduction is occuring and whether or not the Gilt Darter or any darter present in the Pigeon is a successful host species for any or all of the mussel species.

2004 University of Tennessee, Dept. of Forestry, Wildlife & Fisheries