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Multiscale hydrogeomorphic influences on bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) spawning habitat

January 1, 2015

We investigated multiscale hydrogeomorphic influences on the distribution and abundance of bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) spawning in snowmelt-dominated streams of the upper Flathead River basin, northwestern Montana. Within our study reaches, bull trout tended to spawn in the finest available gravel substrates. Analysis of the mobility of these substrates, based on one-dimensional hydraulic modeling and calculation of dimensionless shear stresses, indicated that bed materials in spawning reaches would be mobilized at moderate (i.e., 2-year recurrence interval) high-flow conditions, although the asynchronous timing of the fall–winter egg incubation period and typical late spring – early summer snowmelt high flows in our study area may limit susceptibility to redd scour under current hydrologic regimes. Redd occurrence also tended to be associated with concave-up bedforms (pool tailouts) with downwelling intragravel flows. Streambed temperatures tracked stream water diurnal temperature cycles to a depth of at least 25 cm, averaging 6.1–8.1 °C in different study reaches during the spawning period. Ground water provided thermal moderation of stream water for several high-density spawning reaches. Bull trout redds were more frequent in unconfined alluvial valley reaches (8.5 versus 5.0 redds·km−1 in confined valley reaches), which were strongly influenced by hyporheic and groundwater – stream water exchange. A considerable proportion of redds were patchily distributed in confined valley reaches, however, emphasizing the influence of local physical conditions in supporting bull trout spawning habitat. Moreover, narrowing or “bounding” of these alluvial valley segments did not appear to be important. Our results suggest that geomorphic, thermal, and hydrological factors influence bull trout spawning occurrence at multiple spatial scales.