Effects of Forest Harvesting and Fire on Fish Assemblagesin Boreal Plains Lakes: A Reference Condition Approach

  • Tonn W
  • Paszkowski C
  • Scrimgeour G
 et al. 
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To assess the impacts of forest harvesting and fires on lentic fish assemblages in the Boreal Plains ecoregion (Alberta, Canada), we applied a reference condition approach to 37 lakes in burned, logged, or undisturbed catchments. Fish assemblages in the reference lakes were classified into two types: those dominated by large-bodied piscivores and those dominated by small-bodied fishes. A discriminant function analysis with only two environmental descriptors (lake maximum depth and average slope of the catchment) could correctly predict assemblage type in 84% of reference lakes. Depth likely reflects the influence that winter oxygen concentrations have on fish assemblage type, whereas catchment slope is correlated with a variety of landscape-level features. Although potential effects of forest harvesting and tire can increase the susceptibility of lakes to winter hypoxia (via nutrient enrichment) and alter connectivity to the regional drainage network (via altered hydrology), fish assemblages in 93% of the disturbed lakes did not deviate from the discriminant function predictions, suggesting little, if any, assemblage-level effects of the disturbances over the 1-2-year time period of our study. Indeed, the level of disturbance in a catchment could explain less than 3% of the variation in assemblage structure, although a slight increase in the catches of white sucker Catostomus commersoni and a greater proportion of small individuals in white sucker populations may have reflected a modest enrichment effect in burned lakes. Current levels of landscape disturbance on the Boreal Plains appear to have minimal effects on lake fish assemblages but, because of the susceptibility of these takes to winterkill, higher levels of terrestrial disturbance could prove detrimental.

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  • William M. Tonn

  • Cynthia A. Paszkowski

  • Garry J. Scrimgeour

  • Peter K. M. Aku

  • Marc Lange

  • Ellie E. Prepas

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