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Quantifying Expected Ecological Response to Natural Resource Legislation: a Case Study of Riparian Buffers, Aquatic Habitat, and Trout Populations

Krista L Jones, Institute of Ecology, University of Georgia
Geoffrey C Poole, Eco-metrics, Inc. and Institute of Ecology, University of Georgia
Judy L Meyer, Institute of Ecology, University of Georgia
William Bumback, River Basin Center, University of Georgia
Elizabeth A Kramer, Natural Resources Spatial Analysis Laboratory, University of Georgia


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Regulations governing the management of streamside vegetation (riparian buffers) lie at a nexus between environmental, social, and land development interests, and can yield especially contentious debates among stakeholders. In 2001, the State Legislature of Georgia, USA, took up this debate; the Legislature reduced the minimum width of mandatory-forested riparian buffers along designated trout streams from ∼30 m (100 ft) to ∼15 m (50 ft), and commissioned this study to assess the expected response of existing trout populations. Because our research was designed to provide rigorous and accessible data for informing this management debate, this research may serve as a general template for other studies designed to inform regulatory and management decisions. We established and quantified relationships among riparian forests, aquatic habitat (stream temperature and riffle embeddedness), and trout reproductive success (biomass of young trout). We used these relationships to determine the expected impacts of the buffer width reduction on aquatic habitat and trout reproductive success at the stream segment and stream network scales, and assessed associated uncertainty. When compared with stream segments having 30-m wide buffers, our analysis indicated that individual stream segments with 15-m wide buffers have: 1) higher peak temperatures (average peak stream temperatures during the warmest week of the year increase by ∼2.0 ± 0.3°C, depending on summertime climate conditions); and 2) more fine sediments (fines in riffle habitats increase by approximately 25% of the observed inter-study-site range). The data show that trout populations will respond markedly to these habitat changes. Linear regression models and an associated Monte Carlo uncertainty assessment document an expected 87% reduction in young trout biomass, with a 95% confidence interval ranging from a 66% reduction to a 97% reduction. A landscape assessment showed that 63% of Georgia’s 2nd- to 5th-order trout stream segments could maintain stream temperatures likely (>50% probability) to support young trout in streams bordered by 30-m wide forested riparian buffers. Less than 9% of those streams (only those at the highest elevations) would maintain such temperatures with 15-m wide riparian buffers. As young trout are indicative of trout reproductive success, our results portend substantial reductions or elimination of trout populations in northern Georgia streams where vegetated riparian buffer widths are reduced to 15 m.

Key words

Georgia; natural resource legislation; riparian buffer width; scientific assessment; sediment; southern Appalachians; stream temperature; trout

Copyright © 2006 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087