Responses of fish assemblages to bank stabilization in a large river

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The Yellowstone River remains the longest unimpounded river in the conterminous United States. However, bank stabilization and floodplain dikes have altered its fish habitat. Therefore, I surveyed fish habitat and fish from Laurel to Sidney, Montana, to (1) quantify changes to side channels attributable to linear bank stabilization and floodplain dikes, (2) compare the habitat use of side channels to main channels by small fish during runoff and base flow, and (3) determine if bank stabilization and side channels influenced main-channel fish assemblages during base flow. Floodplain dike frequency, but not linear bank-stabilization extent, directly correlated to a net loss of side channels from the 1950s to 2001. However, side channels provided important fish habitat. Fish habitat use was similar between side and main channels during base flow, but not during runoff when catch rates in side channels were several times higher than in main channels and assemblage structure differed between side and main channels. Shallow, slow-current velocity (SSCV) habitats were slightly slower in side channels and SSCV patches were larger in side channels than in main channels during runoff, but not during base flow. These habitat differences partially explained the patterns in fish catch rates between channel types. During base flow, fish assemblages in main channels varied with bank-stabilization extent and side-channel availability in alluvial (unconfined) and bluff (confined) river bends. Bank stabilization and side channels had different and sometimes opposite influences on fish assemblage structure. Influences of bank stabilization and side channels on fish relative abundances varied depending on species and river bend geomorphology. Assemblage responses to side channels were more consistent and widespread than to bank stabilization, and more fish species associated with side channels than bank stabilization. Physical differences probably contributed to the assemblage differences between reference and stabilized river bends; stabilized alluvial pools were deeper than reference alluvial pools. The strengths of the relationships among fish assemblages, bank stabilization, and side channels were spatial scale-dependent; optimum scales ranged from less than 200 m to 3,200 m up- and down-stream, suggesting that bank stabilization and side channels influenced fish across multiple spatial scales.




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