Spatial and temporal variability in movements and vital rates of sympatric salmonids in an unfragmented, inland watershed

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


The life history patterns and vital rates of stream dwelling fish can differ across biological, spatial, and temporal scales. We determined the movement patterns and vital rates of three abundant salmonids--brown trout (Salmo trutta), mountain whitefish (Prosopium williamsoni), and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)--in the Smith River watershed of Montana, a system with three distinct geomorphic regions: the headwaters, semi-wilderness canyon, and prairie. We marked 7,172 fish with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, monitored their watershed-scale movements past 15 stationary PIT arrays over four years, and relocated fish between arrays by conducting mobile surveys along the Smith River and major tributaries. Fish movement patterns and survival probabilities varied seasonally, among species, and among locations within the watershed. Volume of movement and diversity of movers were both greatest in the canyon region and in lower portions of tributaries. Fish rarely left the canyon, but movement into the canyon from other regions was common among some groups of fish. Mountain whitefish were most likely to move and brown trout were least likely to move. The stream lengths traversed by fish followed a leptokurtic distribution with most fish travelling < 10 km and decreasing numbers of fish travelling farther. Distinct life history patterns were not evident as judged by the stream lengths traversed by tagged fish; rather, a continuous spectrum of distances traversed was apparent. Species-specific spawning periods were associated with increased frequency of movement by mountain whitefish and rainbow trout. Increases in the frequency of watershed-scale movements of all three species were associated mean daily water temperatures of 11.7-15.3°C, compared to periods when water temperatures were cooler or warmer. Annual probabilities of survival were highest among mountain whitefish (0.38-0.54) and lower among brown trout (0.16-0.38) and rainbow trout (0.08-0.39). Survival of rainbow trout and mountain whitefish was highest in the canyon. Survival of mountain whitefish was also high in the headwaters but was lowest in the prairie. Movements of fish in the Smith River watershed were diverse, allowed movement among habitats with different probabilities of survival, and probably contributed to meta-population function, population resiliency, and species diversity.




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