Relative contributions of climate variation, lake trout predation, and other factors to the decline of Yellowstone Lake cutthroat trout during the three recent decades

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The relative contributions of climate variation, lake trout Salvelinus namaycush predation, and other factors to the recent, three-decade decline of the lacustrine-adfluvial (i.e., a life-history form consisting of fish that mostly live in a lake but spawn in an inflowing tributary) Yellowstone cutthroat trout Oncorhynchus clarkii bouvieri (YCT) population of Clear Creek, a Yellowstone Lake tributary, were evaluated. Strong growth of that population's storied spawning run between the early 1960s and 1978, when the run peaked at about 70,000 fish, had been considered key evidence of recovery of the lake's YCT population from formerly excessive angler harvest and other adverse factors. Thus the run's subsequent, almost continuous decline to about 500 fish in 2007 was perplexing. Gillnet catches of YCT at established lake locations likewise indicated a concurrent decline in the lake-wide YCT population. Prominent among the factors that may have importantly affected the YCT population during the recent decades was predation by the illegally introduced, reproducing, nonnative lake trout discovered in Yellowstone Lake in 1994. Data mainly taken from YCT in the spawning run (n = 29 years) and gillnet catch (n = 30 years) were examined for information useful to specifying the Leslie matrix of a dynamic, age-structured model that had climate as a covariate. The model, fitted to spawning run size and mean total length (TL) of YCT in the run during 1977-2007 (n = 29 data years), explained 87% of variation in observed run size, 86% of variation in observed mean TL, and strongly suggested that climate (as indexed by total-annual air degree-days > 0°C measured on the lake's north shore) had an important effect on recruitment of age-0 YCT to subsequent spawning runs. Results also suggested that an effect of lake trout predation on survival of age-1 to age-5 YCT became apparent only during the recent decade. The important test of ongoing efforts to control lake trout in Yellowstone Lake and thereby limit their predation on YCT - on the basis of data for YCT - will occur when climatic conditions improve for YCT recruitment to the Clear Creek and other YCT spawning stocks of the lake.




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