Life history characteristics and the effects of climate on growth of Yellowstone cutthroat trout in headwater basins

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout was historically distributed throughout the Upper Yellowstone and Upper Snake River drainages, but now occupies only 42% of its original range because of habitat degradation and introduced salmonid species. Many of the current strongholds are located on public land in mountainous watersheds with low human disturbance. However, knowledge of life history characteristics of headwater populations is limited. Moreover, streams throughout the Rocky Mountains have already exhibited symptoms of climate change through alterations in thermal and hydrologic regimes, but it is unknown how these changes will affect fish populations. To address these needs, we implemented a mark-recapture study on five populations of trout from Spread Creek, Wyoming, and Shields River, Montana, to estimate annual growth, survival rates, and movement patterns, and document the effects of discharge, temperature, and food availability on summer growth patterns. Survival rates were high compared to survival rates of other Cutthroat Trout subspecies and large trout generally had lower survival rates than small trout. Downstream movements out of streams by tagged trout were substantial. Annual growth rates varied among streams and size classes, but were relatively low compared to populations of Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout from large, low elevation streams. Trout grew more in length than weight in summer, suggesting an investment in structural growth rather than accumulation of reserve tissues. Temperature and discharge had strong effects on summer growth, but the effect of discharge was greater for growth in weight than in length, probably resulting from increased prey availability at high discharges. Temperature interacted with fish length such that small trout responded favorably to increased average daily temperatures near physiological optima and increased growing season length, whereas large trout responded negatively to warming temperatures. These estimates of key demographic parameters are useful in developing management and conservation strategies. Additionally, we documented that even under thermally suitable conditions, discharge can have significant effects on growth, making it important to consider multiple factors affected by climate change when devising climate adaptation strategies for coldwater fishes.




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