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Riverine Landscapes

Aerial photo of the Danube River.

Danube River photo by Ashley Steel

Natural conditions and human actions within a watershed
drive the distribution of habitats and animals within
that watershed. For example, the percentage of particular
geologies with a watershed, road density within the watershed,
or the quantity and spatial location of urbanized areas
all contribute to the condition of streams and rivers
within that same watershed. Identifying and quantifying
these relationships is a rapidly developing approach
to riverine ecology.

Ashley Steel
Blake Feist, NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center
Kelly Burnett, US Forest Service, PNW Research Station
Stefan Schmutz, Rafaela Schinegger, and Clemens Trautwein, Institut für Hydrobiologie und Gewässermanagement, Department Wasser - Atmosphäre – Umwelt, BOKU - Universität für Bodenkultur, Austria

Research Description:

In our original analyses, we developed and integrated spatial and statistical analyses that linked land-use and landform
to Pacific salmon distribution patterns across multiple PNW watersheds and salmonid species and lifestages. Pess et al.
(2004), Feist et al. (2005), and Steel et al. (2006) summarized initial analyses and communicated them to scientific audiences.
A special session on landscape approaches to river research at the International Congress of IALE (International Association
of Landscape Ecology) led to a review manuscript that summarized landscape-fish relationships, describing the development
of landscape-scale riverine research.

The review paper considers the degree to which past efforts have been successful at meeting three key challenges:

(1) Has new research effectively incorporated the strengths of new technologies or are we doing the same old thing
with more expensive data?

(2) Have we incorporated key concepts from landscape ecology to improve our understanding of how landscapes
affect rivers?

(3) Have we been able to use landscape analyses to address management and policy needs?

The manuscript concludes with a review of opportunities for advancement in the field of landscape-scale riverine
research. These include moving toward the development of mechanistic theories of how landscapes affect rivers
across disparate regions; considering the spatio-temporal structure of human impacts on landscapes; harnessing
new statistical tools; and carefully defining landscape and response metrics to capture specific features (Steel
et al. 2010). To address one of these opportunities, we quantified the importance of underlying correlations between
natural and anthropogenic landscape characteristics when building statistical models and, in particular, when
comparing them across regions and spatial scales (Lucero et al. 2011).

We also conducted a series of analyses using data from the Oregon Coast, both existing index surveys of coho
salmon spawners and probabilistically sampled data collected under the Oregon Plan, to expand our understanding
of coho salmon spawner distribution. In the first analysis, the density of spawning coho salmon Oncorhynchus
was modeled from landscape features at multiple spatial extents to identify regions or conditions
needed to conserve populations of threatened fish and to identify spatial relationships that might be important
in modeling (Firman et al. 2011).

The second study focused on relationships between landscape conditions and the in-stream habitat
characteristics important to Pacific salmonids as well as to healthy streams and rivers more generally. The
objectives of the habitat analyses were (a) to evaluate how much in-stream habitat variation can be accounted
for by landscape predictors, and (b) to determine whether a management-influenced signal, above and beyond
that associated with immutable landscape predictors, can be detected (Anlauf et al 2013).

The third analysis focused on the probabilistically sampled data to quantify and compare variance in spawner
counts over space and time, to identify those landscape features most strongly correlated with occupancy and
abundance, to compare models of occupancy versus abundance, and to compare models built from the Oregon
Plan data set to models based on data collected using more ad hoc sampling schemes (Steel et al 2012).
These analyses were summarized in a Science Findings newsletter produced by the PNW Research Station.

A research project was recently initiated in collaboration with USFS Region 10 in Juneau, AK, to explore
landscape-scale patterns in monitoring data for resident fish species, Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) and
cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii). As well, we are continuing to explore the Oregon Coast data on coho
salmon by building a mixed-effects model to partition variance in juvenile coho salmon across study reaches
and over time. We intend to synthesize the multiply analyses along the Oregon Coast into a life-cycle model that
incorporates landscape-scale conditions.


Note: Most PDF files linked in the publications section of this page were not created by the USDA Forest Service, and may not be accessible to screen-reader software. Many publications are open access, and links to the html versions on the journal websites are also provided, where applicable.


Steel, E.A., A. Muldoon, R.L. Flitcroft, J.C. Firman, K.J. Anlauf-Dunn, K.M. Burnett, R.J. Danehy. 2017. Current landscapes and legacies of land-use past: Understanding the distribution of juvenile coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) and their habitats along the Oregon Coast, USA. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 74(4): 546-561. https://doi.org/10.1139/cjfas-2015-0589

Turschwell, M.P., S.R. Balcombe, E.A. Steel, F. Sheldon, E.E. Peterson. 2017. Thermal habitat restricts patterns of occurrence in multiple life-stages of a headwater fish. Freshwater Science 36: 402-414. Link to DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/691553.


O’Callaghan, J., with E.A. Steel and K.M. Burnett. February 2012. Thinking big: linking rivers to landscapes. PNW Research Station Science Findings. Available at http://www.fs.fed.us/pnw/sciencef/scifi139.pdf

Steel, E.A., D.W. Jensen, K.M. Burnett, K. Christiansen, J.C. Firman, B.E. Feist, K. Anlauf, and D.P. Larsen. 2012. Landscape characteristics and coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) distributions: explaining abundance versus occupancy. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 69:457-468.


Anlauf, K.J., D.W. Jensen, K.M. Burnett, E.A. Steel, K. Christiansen, J.C. Firman, B.E. Feist, and D.P. Larsen. 2011. Explaining spatial variability in stream habitats using both natural and management-influenced landscape predictors. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 21: 704-714.

Firman, J.C., E.A. Steel, D.W. Jensen, K.M. Burnett, K. Christiansen B.E. Feist, and D.P. Larsen. 2011. Landscape models of coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) distribution in western Oregon: implications for management associated with spatial extent. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 140:440-455.

Fullerton, A.H., S.T. Lindley, G.R. Pess, B.E. Feist, E.A. Steel, and P. McElhany. 2011. Human influence on the spatial structure of threatened Pacific salmon metapopulations. Conservation Biology 25(5): 932-944. Supplemental material: Appendix S1, Appendix S2, Appendix S3, Appendix S4, Appendix S5

Lucero, Y., E.A. Steel, K.M. Burnett, K. Christiansen. 2011. Untangling human development and natural gradients: Implications of underlying correlation structure for linking landscapes and riverine ecosystems. River Systems 19(3):207-224.


Feist, B.E., E.A. Steel, D.W. Jensen and D.N.D Sather. 2010. Does the scale of our observational window affect our conclusions about correlations between endangered salmon populations and their habitat? Landscape Ecology 25(5):727–743.

Steel, E.A., R.M. Hughes, A.H. Fullerton, S. Schmutz, J.A. Young, M. Fukushima, S. Muhar, M. Poppe, B.E. Feist, and C. Trautwein. 2010. Are we meeting the challenges of landscape-scale riverine research? A review. Living Reviews in Landscape Research 4. Available at http://landscaperesearch.livingreviews.org/Articles/lrlr-2010-1/


Feist, B.E., E.A. Steel, G.R. Pess, and R.E. Bilby. 2003. The influence of scale on salmon habitat restoration priorities. Animal Conservation 6:271-282.

Pess, G.R., D.R. Montgomery, R.E. Bilby, E.A. Steel, B.E. Feist, and H.M. Greenberg. 2002. Correlation of landscape characteristics and land use on coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) abundance, Snohomish River, Washington state, USA. Canadian Journal of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences 59:613-623.

Sheer, M.B., and E.A. Steel. 2006. Lost watersheds: barriers, aquatic habitat connectivity, and species persistence in the Willamette and Lower Columbia basins. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 135:1654-1669.

Steel, E.A., B.E. Feist, D. Jensen, G.R. Pess, M. Sheer, J. Brauner, and R.E. Bilby. 2004. Landscape models to understand steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) distribution and help prioritize barrier removals in the Willamette basin, OR, U.S.A. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 61:999-1011.

Steel, E.A., L. Johnston, B.E. Feist, G. Pess, R.E. Bilby, D. Jensen, T. Beechie, and J. Myers. 2003. Pacific salmon recovery planning and the Salmonid Watershed Analysis Model (SWAM): a broad-scale tool for assisting in the development of habitat recovery plans. Endangered Species Update 20(1):1-32