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FY 2016 Program Highlights

DRIVEN BY SCIENCE

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Long-Term Aquatic Habitat Monitoring at Northwest National Wildlife Refuges

By Sean Connolly, Marci Koski, and Sam Lohr, Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program

How do you monitor -- and manage for --the long-term effects of climate change on aquatic habitats and organisms across a network of land and waters spanning three states? It's one the many challenges Pacific Northwest National Wildlife Refuges face in an era where climactic changes in rainfall patterns and air temperature could have unforeseen impacts upon their native aquatic species and habitats.

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho. Photo Credit: USFWS

Beginning in 2014, the Service initiated a pilot project to develop a long-term aquatic monitoring program at key sites across the Refuges' range. The projects' goal is to evaluate potential effects of climate change over time by monitoring physical features of streams (e.g., temperature, flow, and habitat) and associated changes in aquatic species. The results will help Refuges track changes to aquatic populations and habitat over time, using science to inform future management actions.

Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge beaver ponds are an example of the aquatic habitats the Service is studying to determine long-term effects due to climate change.
Photo Credit: S. Lindsay

The data --and the management actions they may influence--are important. In addition to providing homes or flyway stops for a variety of migratory birds, songbirds, mammals and other animals, most Oregon, Idaho, and Washington refuges contain waterscapes that provide habitat for cold water fish like federally-protected bull trout, salmon, and steelhead, sensitive species like Pacific lamprey, sculpins, and other aquatic organisms like amphibians and native freshwater mussels.
Bull trout. Photo Credit: Joel Sartore/National Geographic; Wade Fredenberg/USFWS

To collect quality data over time, the biologists needed a study design that could be easily implemented. Site selection was a critical first step: sites had to be minimally-impacted by non-climate stressors like development or water diversions, have high fish species diversity, and be wadeable for ease of data collection. After a season of site visits and extensive GIS analysis, five sentinel sites were identified at Kootenai (Idaho), Little Pend Oreille (Washington), Willapa (Washington), William Finley (Oregon) and Malheur (Oregon) National Wildlife Refuges.

Youth Conservation Corps crew members helping to collect data during aquatic species and habitat monitoring at Idaho's Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo Credit: Micheal Faler/USFWS

The data collection methods needed to be robust, scientifically-credible, and include both physical and biological variables. Biologists are using guidance developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to continuously measure water temperature and stream flow using data loggers. Habitat surveys also are being conducted using EPA's Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP) methods. EMAP methods are also being used to conduct fish surveys and collect aquatic macroinvertebrate samples. Using these established methods ensures the data can be adequately managed across multiple offices over time.

A Service biologist surveys habitat at Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo Credit: Sam Lohr/USFWS


The data collection methods needed to be robust, scientifically-credible, and include both physical and biological variables. Biologists are using guidance developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to continuously measure water temperature and stream flow using data loggers. Habitat surveys also are being conducted using EPA's Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP) methods. EMAP methods are also being used to conduct fish surveys and collect aquatic macroinvertebrate samples. Using these established methods ensures the data can be adequately managed across multiple offices over time.

At the end of 2016, two years' of data have been collected and analyzed. A progress report on results through the initial year of implementation has been completed. After the third field season ends next year, the Service will assess the study's sustainability, logistical constraints, and performance to develop recommendations for long-term implementation.

Eulachon, one of many native fish species that are being studied as part of the Service's long-term monitoring program for aquatic habitats on Pacific Northwest National Wildlife Refuges. Photo Credit: James Crip.


How long will the agency have to monitor to assess changes? Most fish generations span 4-10 years, so monitoring over decades may be required. But changes can be observed on shorter timescales, too, and already have been. At Little Pend Oreille NWR in summer 2016, scientists discovered an abundance of recently invading pumpkinseeds while electrofishing. Refuge staff found the source at a lake that had been treated with Rotenone in recent years to remove unwanted fish populations, which pushed surviving pumpkinseeds into new habitat areas. While climate change wasn't the culprit for the pumpkinseed population boom, its persistence and how the other species (rainbow, brook, and brown trout, sculpins and western pearlshell mussels) respond to the new competitor will be influenced by future stream temperatures.

In an era when rapidly-changing environmental conditions will require focused and tactical conservation efforts, generating meaningful, scientific data is vital for understanding and instituting effective stewardship of our natural resources. It also reinforces a Service commitment to long-term cross-program collaboration, which will be key to sustaining the more-than-a-century conservation legacy National Wildlife Refuges provide to the nation's wildlife, habitat, and people.

William Finley National Wildlife Refuge. Photo Credit: USFWS

 

Last Updated: May 25, 2017
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