Reproductive and juvenile ecology of mountain whitefish in the upper Green River, Wyoming
Brown, Colter Davis
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Mountain Whitefish Prosopium williamsoni are a salmonid native to the northern Rocky Mountains that has experienced declines in population abundance in rivers throughout Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Problems with recruitment are suspected, but often the specific mechanisms causing population declines are unknown. Our approach to better understand the mechanisms that influence Mountain Whitefish population dynamics was to compare population characteristics between the Green River, Wyoming and the Madison River, Montana populations. Boyer et al. (2017a) conducted an extensive study on the movement and reproductive ecology of Mountain Whitefish in the Madison River, and we used this study as a template to make direct comparisons between the populations. Our primary research questions were 1) what is the age and length at first maturity, spawning periodicity, fecundity, and age structure of Mountain Whitefish, 2) what is the spatial and temporal distribution of Mountain Whitefish through their spawning period, and what influence do abiotic factors have on spawning and movement, and 3) what is the spatial distribution and habitat use of age-0 Mountain Whitefish? We collected otoliths and gonadal samples from 127 Mountain Whitefish in the Green River, implanted 100 fish with radio transmitters and tracked them from September 1 to early November in 2019 and 2020, determined spawning period and locations using egg mats, kick netting, and angling, and sampled age-0 Mountain Whitefish using a beach seine in slow-water habitats. The geographic separation and difference in hydrogeomorphic conditions between the systems allowed us to form generalizations about Mountain Whitefish in the Intermountain West. We found Mountain Whitefish in both systems mature between ages 2 and 4, primarily spawn annually, have a similar relative fecundity, spawning movements vary, males begin movement prior to females, and age-0 fish drift downstream of spawning locations and use slow-water silt-laden habitats after hatching. The main disparities between systems were that in the Green River water temperature was more suitable for embryo development, and age structure was more uniform and older. This research enhanced our understanding of Mountain Whitefish reproductive and juvenile ecology and provided evidence for factors that may influence recruitment of Mountain Whitefish.