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Genetic variation reveals influence of landscape connectivity on population dynamics and resiliency of western trout in disturbance-prone habitats

December 31, 2012

Salmonid fishes have evolved and persisted in dynamic ecosystems where disturbance events vary in frequency, magnitude, timing, and duration, as well as the specific nature of associated effects (e.g., changes in thermal or flow regimes, geomorphology, or water chemistry). In the western United States, one of the major drivers of disturbance in stream ecosystems is fire. Although there is a growing consensus that fish populations can ultimately benefit from the productive and heterogeneous habitats created by fire, to persist they obviously have to withstand the immediate and shorter-term effects of fire, which can reduce or even extirpate local populations. Movement among interconnected stream habitats is thought to be an important strategy enabling persistence during and following fire, and there is mounting concern that the extensive isolation of salmonid populations in fragmented habitats is reducing their resiliency to fire. In spite of this concern, there are few direct observations of salmonid responses to fire. In fact, guidance is based largely on a broader understanding of the influences of landscape structure and disturbance in general on salmonid fishes, and there is considerable uncertainty about how best to manage for salmonid resilience to wildfire. Studies are limited by the difficult logistics of following fish responses in the face of unpredictable events such as wildfires. Therefore, BACI (Before-After-Control-Impact) study designs are nearly impossible, and replication is similarly challenging because fires are often low-frequency events. Furthermore, conventional ecological study approaches (e.g., studies of fish distribution, abundance, life histories, and movement) are logistically difficult to implement. Overall, a major challenge to understanding resilience of salmonid populations in fire-prone environments is related to moving beyond localized case studies to those with broader applicability in wildfire management . Genetic data can be useful for overcoming many of the limitations inherent in ecological studies. Here we review several case studies of western trout where population genetic data have provided insight about fish responses to fragmentation and disturbance more generally, and specifically in relation to fire. Results of these studies confirm the importance of movement and landscape connectivity for ensuring fish persistence in fire-prone landscapes, and highlight the usefulness of genetic approaches for broad-scale evaluation and monitoring of population responses to fire and related management actions.

Publication Year 2012
Title Genetic variation reveals influence of landscape connectivity on population dynamics and resiliency of western trout in disturbance-prone habitats
Authors Helen M. Neville, Robert E. Gresswell, Jason B. Dunham
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Series Title Technical Report
Series Number RMRS-GTR-290
Index ID 70157463
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center