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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Framework for Assessing Viability of Threatened and Endangered Chinook Salmon and Steelhead in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Basin


Protected evolutionarily significant units (ESUs) of salmonids require objective and measurable criteria for guiding their recovery. In this report, we develop a method for assessing population viability and two ways to integrate these population-level assessments into an assessment of ESU viability. Population viability is assessed with quantitative extinction models or criteria relating to population size, population growth rate, the occurrence of catastrophic declines, and the degree of hatchery influence. ESU viability is assessed by examining the number and distribution of viable populations across the landscape and their proximity to sources of catastrophic disturbance.

Central Valley spring-run and winter-run Chinook salmon ESUs are not currently viable, according to the criteria-based assessment. In both ESUs, extant populations may be at low risk of extinction, but these populations represent a small portion of the historical ESUs, and are vulnerable to catastrophic disturbance. The winter-run Chinook salmon ESU, in the extreme case, is represented by a single population that spawns outside of its historical spawning range. We are unable to assess the status of the Central Valley steelhead ESU with our framework because almost all of its roughly 80 populations are classified as data deficient. The few exceptions are those populations with a closely associated hatchery, and the naturally-spawning fish in these streams are at high risk of extinction. Population monitoring in this ESU is urgently needed.

Global and regional climate change poses an additional risk to the survival of salmonids in the Central Valley. A literature review suggests that by 2100, mean summer temperatures in the Central Valley region may increase by 2-8°C, precipitation will likely shift to more rain and less snow, with significant declines in total precipitation possible, and hydrographs will likely change, especially the the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. Warming at the lower end of the predicted range may allow spring-run Chinook salmon to persist in some streams, while making some currently utilized habitat inhospitable. At the upper end of the range of predicted warming, very little spring-run Chinook salmon habitat is expected to remain suitable.

In spite of the precarious position of Central Valley salmonid ESUs, there are prospects for greatly improving their viability. Recovering Central Valley ESUs may require re-establishing populations where historical populations have been extirpated (e.g., upstream of major dams). Such major efforts should be focused on those watersheds that offer the best possibility of providing suitable habitat in a warmer future.

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