Current Projects

Tenderfoot Creek Bair Ranch Foundation Research Project II

Duration: January 2014 – December 2015

A detailed study of Tenderfoot Creek by the Montana Cooperative Fishery Research Unit at Montana State University has been ongoing since 2009. The past four years of data collection have produced an efficient data collection process, detailed knowledge about the area, connections with local landowners and agencies, and an intimacy with the dynamics of the Smith River basin. With this experience and groundwork, T. David Ritter and his team will add to the information already gathered by filling in the gaps where data is lacking and learn more about this system by investigating phenomena discovered over the course of the study. The following objectives have been identified:

1. Determine use of the Tenderfoot Creek confluence area as a thermal refuge.
2. Perform thermal mapping of the Smith River and Tenderfoot Creek and its outflow and confluence with the Smith River both on the ground and by aerial winter mapping of upwelling zones.
3. Tag about 250 fish in the Smith River to determine how they are using Tenderfoot Creek or its outflow.
4. Perform portable tracking surveys in the Smith River with emphasis on the Tenderfoot Creek outflow.
5. Investigate movement of fish year-round, with more emphasis on winter and spring and critical times of the year (high/low temperature and high/low flow).
6. Operate fixed stations at the confluence and 8 kilometers up from the confluence by replenishing batteries by snowmobile and perform portable antenna surveys during the winter. Spring operation of antennas may be difficult given the high flow associated with snow-melt, but would provide more insight to rainbow trout spawning effort and high-water movement of mountain whitefish.
7. Increase frequency of portable tracking events to locate fish between fixed stations.
8. Investigate movement of age-1 salmonids (brown, brook, and rainbow trout and
mountain whitefish).
9. Use about 100 12-mm HDX PIT tags to monitor movement of fish under 120-mm.

Turneffe Atoll Trust Student Support

Duration: August 2012 – July 2015

An investigation of the status and life history of queen conch at Turneffe Atoll, Belize

Completed Projects

Assessment Of The Potential Effects of The Exxon Oil Spill on the Yellowstone River Spiny Softshell Turtle Population

Duration: June 2012 – June 2013

An assessment of the potential effects of the 2011 Exxon oil spill on the Yellowstone River spiny softshell turtle population.

Assessment of The Potential Effects of the Exxon Oil Spill on the Yellowstone River Fish Assemblage

Duration: June 2012 – June 2013

An assessment of the potential effects of the 2011 Exxon oil spill on the Yellowstone River fish assemblage

Life-History Evaluation of Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout in Spread Creek, Wyoming, with Specific Linkages to Regional Climate Change and Invasive Species

Duration: June 2012 – June 2014

In order to effectively manage native salmonid populations in the face of climate change, linkages between trout and their environment and how these relate to interactions between climate and the physical attributes of the watershed must be understood. This research will address the following question: How do interactions between climate and physical attributes of the watershed influence the spatial and temporal variation in life history patters, movement, and population dynamics of Yellowstone cutthroat trout?

Blackfeet Nation Lands Fishery Study

Duration: June 2012 – October 2014

An assessment of the effects of livestock grazing on stream fish assemblages on the Blackfeet Reservation to be used to manage reintroduced bison.

Predicting Effects of Climate Change on Native Fishes in Northern Great Plains Streams

Duration: September 2011 – September 2013

The fish assemblages of Great Plains streams may be perceived as “living on the edge,” because water quantity and water quality are often precariously close to ecological tolerance limits. At the same time, prairie streams provide critical “green lines” of habitat, in a sea of semi-arid prairies for both aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. For example, in Montana, prairie streams are a stronghold of native biodiversity that support 25 native fish species, 14 amphibian and reptile species, and more than 130 bird species. It appears, however, that changes in water quantity and quality associated with global climate change may substantially alter these networks of biodiversity. Our goal is to predict the effects of climate change on the hydrology and biota of northern Great Plains streams. We propose to link predicted changes in precipitation and air temperature to changes in water quantity and quality in streams, and in turn, fish assemblages.

Tenderfoot Creek Bair Ranch Foundation Research Project

Duration: July 2009 – June 2014

The Smith River is a popular recreational sportfishery in western Montana, but salmonid abundances there are relatively low and believed to be potentially limited by high summer water temperatures and low discharges resulting from irrigation withdrawals and land-management practices. Smith River tributaries may serve as thermal refuges during summer and also as important spawning and nursery areas. If so, then maintaining connectivity between the mainstem river and its tributaries would be a management priority. Such use would also help identify deficiencies in the mainstem that could potentially be corrected through habitat or water management. Moreover, an understanding of salmonid habitat use and management in a thermally stressed and dewatered system could help identify potential global climate change adaptation management strategies and tactics. Our goal is to identify limiting factors in the Smith River system and evaluate the importance of its tributaries as spawning and nursery areas and thermal refuges. The research focuses on the lower reaches of Tenderfoot Creek, a largely undeveloped major tributary to the Smith River. Six PIT tag stations have been installed throughout the lower 8.5 miles of Tenderfoot Creek. This PIT tag detection network monitors the seasonal movements of about 1,000 tagged fish. Abundances are estimated by depletion electrofishing surveys, mark-recapture studies, and snorkeling. Redd counts are performed in both spring and fall. A water-level recorder and temperature loggers have been deployed to monitor temperatures and flow regimes and aid in determining reasons for movement among habitats.

Anthropogenic Habitat Change Effects on Fish Assemblages of the Middle and Lower Yellowstone River: Phase II

Duration: June 2009 – December 2013

Although the Yellowstone River remains the largest undammed river in the continental United States, it is nonetheless exposed to a number of anthropogenic stressors including bank stabilization, diversion dams, water withdrawals, and altered hydrographs, thermographs, and sediment regimes from dammed tributaries. The purpose of this study is to evaluate the effects of bank stabilization on the river morphology, fish habitats, and the fish assemblage within the transition and warmwater fish zones of the Yellowstone River.

Habitats and Movements of Spiny Softshells in The Missouri River in Montana

Duration: May 2009 – December 2013

Little is known about the populations of spiny softshells Apalone spinifera hartwegi, in Montana, where they are a state Species of Concern, a Tier 1 Species with greatest conservation need, and a Bureau of Land Management Sensitive Species. The spiny softshell populations upstream of Ft. Peck Dam are isolated from other Montana populations, and are therefore at risk of extirpation. Although dam operations affect riverine and riparian habitats, the relationships between hydrograph and use of habitats for nesting, feeding, basking, and overwintering by spiny softshell are not known. Recreation and cattle grazing are prevalent land uses in the Missouri Breaks National Monument and the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Spiny softshells may be particularly vulnerable to human disturbance and have been observed to abandon nesting when a boat or human came within visual range.

Our overall goal is to document how human activities, i.e., dam operations and hydrograph, recreation, and cattle grazing affect spiny softshell habitat use, movements, nesting behavior and site selection, and overwintering locations in a ~ 50 mile reach of the Missouri River from Judith Landing on the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument downstream to the Fred Robinson Bridge on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This reach spans a gradient of spiny softshell catch per unit effort ranging from 16.7 turtles per trap night in the upstream part of the reach to 0.3 turtles per trap night near the downstream end.

Destruction of Lake Trout Embryos in Natural Settings to Enhance Persistence of Native Trout

Duration: November 2008 – December 2009

Critically assess ecological effectiveness, cost efficiency, and safety of alternative methods to destroy lake trout embryos in natural settings.

Stream-Network Assessment of Thermal Habitat for Arctic Grayling and Non-Native Salmonids in The Upper Big Hole River Watershed, Montana

Duration: October 2008 – December 2010

We propose to produce a spatially-continuous dataset and map of stream water temperatures throughout the portion of the Big Hole River watershed representing the historic distribution of fluvial Arctic grayling and interpret that data within the context of Arctic grayling conservation. The data will characterize the distribution of thermally suitable grayling and non-native salmonid habitat during late summer and identify thermally significant areas and associated habitat attributes (e.g., riparian vegetation, channel alteration, or dewatering) that can guide conservation efforts for grayling. In addition, these spatially explicit thermal data will be used as a baseline for evaluating the potential effects of climate change, habitat restoration, and potential shifts in non-native salmonid distributions.

Landscape-Scale Effects of Wildfire on Aquatic Systems in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado

Duration: April 2008 – July 2010

In order to provide information necessary to evaluate the effects of wildfire at the landscape scale, interdisciplinary data concerning physical and biological characteristics of study watersheds will be used to spatially assess the vulnerability of a high elevation landscape to negative consequences of fire. Relationships between current terrestrial and aquatic components of fish habitat and current patterns of fish distribution and abundance will be evaluated. Resulting data will be used to: (1) evaluate the risk of wildfire in watersheds in the study area (Grand County, Colorado), (2) identify watersheds where significant post-fire floods, debris flows, and sediment deposition could have negative effects on aquatic resources, and (3) provide information necessary to identify potential prefire management actions that would reduce or eliminate negative consequences to at-risk aquatic resources (e.g., isolated populations of threatened or endangered species).


1. Consult with collaborators to identify the most appropriate scale for experimental (sample) units (e.g., watersheds) in the study area (Grand County) and determine the sampling frame.
2. A probability-based sampling methodology will be used to select sample watersheds.
3. In each sample watershed, habitat will be hierarchically classified at the segment, geomorphic reach, and channel-unit scales.
4. In collaboration with scientists in local land-management agencies, relative abundance of fish will be estimated in all pools and cascades in each watershed using electrofishing as the primary means of fish collection. All fish will be measured (total length to the nearest 1 mm) and weighed (nearest 0.1 g). In each stream segment, scale samples for age analyses will be collected from up to five fish in each 10-mm length category.
5. Resulting information will be integrated into interdisciplinary and multi-agency databases (remote-sensed imagery, remote technology (MOTES), watershed modeling tools, and tools to analyze wildfire hazards and to mitigate impacts on people, property, and natural resources).
6. Data analyses will be conducted hierarchically at three spatial scales (watershed scale, within watershed, disturbed-control comparisons). Watershed scale analysis provides the most information about the distribution of aquatic invertebrates and fishes prior to disturbances such as fire. Baseline information on predisturbance habitat conditions and spatial patterns of fish distribution will provide a basis for comparison as the study progresses. The second level of analysis will explore watersheds in individual watershed classes (as defined in the initial stream classification). A third level of analysis will differentiate patterns of fish abundance in treatment and control (burned-unburned) watersheds. Geographic analysis of fish movement and spatial patterns in fish distribution will focus on the identification of geomorphically distinct peaks in fish distribution.

Distribution, Abundance, And Movement of Native Cutthroat Trout in the Snake River Below Jackson Lake.

Duration: February 2008 – January 2012

Goals of this research are to Investigate the distribution, abundance, and movement of the finespotted Snake River cutthroat trout below Jackson Lake Dam and determine the effects of discharge, sediment accumulation, and off-channel habitat on cutthroat trout recruitment and survival. Data collected will be incorporated into models that will project future river channels ranging from those expected given current trends to those expected without the Jackson lake dam. Models will be used to develop new insights into the management of this portion of the Snake River and potential for restoring some elements of ecosystem function that have been lost since the construction of Jackson Lake Dam. Specific objectives are:
1. Determine distribution and relative abundance of fine-spotted Snake River cutthroat trout in the Snake River from Jackson Lake Dam to Moose, Wyoming.
2. Identify spawning areas and movement patterns of cutthroat trout in the Snake River from Jackson Lake Dam to Moose, Wyoming.
3. Investigate the relationships among physical habitat, discharge, and distribution and movement patterns of cutthroat trout in the Snake River study area.

Distribution, Habitats and Tributary Linkages of Small and Non-Game Fishes in the Lower Yellowstone River

Duration: October 2007 – June 2012

The Yellowstone River is the largest undammed river in the contiguous United States. Biologists have concentrated most of their efforts on the game and larger nongame species within the river, and we still lack a basic understanding of small and nongame fishes in the mainstem Yellowstone River. Two of these species, the sturgeon chub Macrhybopsis gelida and sicklefin chub M. meeki are species of special concern within Montana and potentially important prey items for the endangered pallid sturgeon.

The objectives of this project are to determine the composition, distribution, abundance, and habitat requirements of native and non-game fishes in the lower Yellowstone River, quantify landscape-level linkages between tributary streams and the lower Yellowstone River using otolith microchemistry, and determine the differences in the lower Yellowstone and Missouri river fish assemblages.