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Capacity of two Sierra Nevada rivers for reintroduction of anadromous salmonids: Insights from a high-resolution view

December 6, 2021

Historically, anadromous steelhead Oncorhynchus mykiss and spring-run Chinook Salmon O. tshawytscha used high-elevation rivers in the Sierra Nevada of California but were extirpated in the 20th century by construction of impassable dams. Plans to reintroduce the fish by opening migratory passage across the dams and reservoirs can only succeed if upstream habitats have the capacity to support viable populations of each species. To estimate capacity in the Tuolumne and Merced rivers of the central Sierra Nevada, we used a high-resolution approach based on remote sensing and dynamic habitat modeling. Our results suggested that for both species in both systems, sediment grain sizes would support widespread spawning and the water temperatures, depths, and velocities would generate ample capacity for fry and juveniles. However, the unregulated Merced River was consistently too warm for adult Chinook Salmon to hold in the dry season prior to spawning, while the regulated Tuolumne River maintained a cooler, more stable thermal regime with a capacity for thousands of holding adults. In our high-resolution approach, we also discovered several specific physical controls on life history expression, including thermal constraints on the timing of spawning, hydraulic prompts for downstream migration of fry, divergence of the hydraulic niches of steelhead and Chinook Salmon, and a key but uncertain role for thermal tolerance in adult Chinook Salmon. Our results suggested that steelhead reintroduction could succeed in either system and Chinook Salmon could succeed in the Tuolumne River if passage strategies account for large numbers of migrant fry and juveniles driven downstream by winter storms and snowmelt. The Merced River appeared too warm for adult Chinook Salmon, which raises questions about the current limited understanding of thermal tolerance in holding adults. Our study shows how a high-resolution approach can provide valuable insights on specific limiting factors that must be addressed for reintroduction to succeed.

Publication Year 2022
Title Capacity of two Sierra Nevada rivers for reintroduction of anadromous salmonids: Insights from a high-resolution view
DOI 10.1002/tafs.10334
Authors David A. Boughton, Lee R. Harrison, Sara N. John, Rosealea M. Bond, Colin L. Nicol, Carl J. Legleiter, Ryan T. Richardson
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Transactions of the American Fisheries Society
Index ID 70227805
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization WMA - Integrated Modeling and Prediction Division