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Estimating thermal regimes of bull trout and assessing the potential effects of climate warming on critical habitats

June 10, 2013

Understanding the vulnerability of aquatic species and habitats under climate change is critical for conservation and management of freshwater systems. Climate warming is predicted to increase water temperatures in freshwater ecosystems worldwide, yet few studies have developed spatially explicit modelling tools for understanding the potential impacts. We parameterized a nonspatial model, a spatial flow-routed model, and a spatial hierarchical model to predict August stream temperatures (22-m resolution) throughout the Flathead River Basin, USA and Canada. Model comparisons showed that the spatial models performed significantly better than the nonspatial model, explaining the spatial autocorrelation found between sites. The spatial hierarchical model explained 82% of the variation in summer mean (August) stream temperatures and was used to estimate thermal regimes for threatened bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) habitats, one of the most thermally sensitive coldwater species in western North America. The model estimated summer thermal regimes of spawning and rearing habitats at <13 C° and foraging, migrating, and overwintering habitats at <14 C°. To illustrate the useful application of such a model, we simulated climate warming scenarios to quantify potential loss of critical habitats under forecasted climatic conditions. As air and water temperatures continue to increase, our model simulations show that lower portions of the Flathead River Basin drainage (foraging, migrating, and overwintering habitat) may become thermally unsuitable and headwater streams (spawning and rearing) may become isolated because of increasing thermal fragmentation during summer. Model results can be used to focus conservation and management efforts on populations of concern, by identifying critical habitats and assessing thermal changes at a local scale.