1. A key element of conservation planning is the extremely challenging task of estimating the likely effect of restoration actions on population status. To compare the relative benefits of typical habitat restoration actions on Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.), we modelled the response of an endangered Columbia River Chinook salmon (O. tshawytscha) population to changes in habitat characteristics either targeted for restoration or with the potential to be degraded.
2. We applied a spatially explicit, multiple life stage, Beverton-Holt model to evaluate how a set of habitat variables with an empirical influence on spring-run Chinook salmon survivorship influenced fish population abundance, productivity, spatial structure and diversity. Using habitat condition scenarios – historical conditions and future conditions with restoration, no restoration, and degradation – we asked the following questions: (i) how is population status affected by alternative scenarios of habitat change, (ii) which individual habitat characteristics have the potential to substantially influence population status and (iii) which life stages have the largest impact on population status?
3. The difference in population abundance and productivities resulting from changes in modelled habitat variables from the ‘historical’ to ‘current’ scenarios suggests that there is substantial potential for improving population status. Planned restoration actions directed toward modelled variables, however, produced only modest improvements.
4. The model predicted that population status could be improved by additional restoration efforts directed toward further reductions in the percentage of fine sediments in the streambed, a factor that has a large influence on egg survival. Actions reducing fines were predicted to be especially effective outside the national forest that covers most of the basin. Scenarios that increased capacity by opening access to habitat in good condition also had a positive but smaller effect on spawner numbers.
5. Degradation in habitat quality, particularly in percent fine sediments, within stream reaches located in the national forest had great potential to further reduce this population’s viability. This finding supports current forest planning efforts to minimise road density and clear-cut harvests and to return forest stand structure in dry regions to the historical condition that promoted frequent low-intensity fires rather than catastrophic stand-replacing fires, as these landscape factors have been shown to influence percent fine sediment in streams.
6. Together, these results suggest that planning focusing on protecting currently good habitat, reducing fine sediments to promote egg survival and increasing spawner capacity will be beneficial to endangered spring-run Chinook population status.