Large-scale coal mining practices, particularly surface coal extraction and associated valley fills as well as residential wastewater discharge, are of ecological concern for aquatic systems in central Appalachia. Identifying and quantifying alterations to ecosystems along a gradient of spatial scales is a necessary first-step to aid in mitigation of negative consequences to aquatic biota. In central Appalachian headwater streams, apart from fish, salamanders are the most abundant vertebrate predator that provide a significant intermediate trophic role linking aquatic and terrestrial food webs. Stream salamander species are considered to be sensitive to aquatic stressors and environmental alterations, as past research has shown linkages among microhabitat parameters, large-scale land use such as urbanization and logging, and salamander abundances. However, there is little information examining these relationships between environmental conditions and salamander occupancy in the coalfields of central Appalachia. In the summer of 2013, 70 sites (sampled two to three times each) in the southwest Virginia coalfields were visited to collect salamanders and quantify stream and riparian microhabitat parameters. Using an information-theoretic framework, effects of microhabitat and large-scale land use on stream salamander occupancy were compared. The findings indicate that Desmognathus spp. occupancy rates are more correlated to microhabitat parameters such as canopy cover than to large-scale land uses. However, Eurycea spp. occupancy rates had a strong association with large-scale land uses, particularly recent mining and forest cover within the watershed. These findings suggest that protection of riparian habitats is an important consideration for maintaining aquatic systems in central Appalachia. If this is not possible, restoration riparian areas should follow guidelines using quick-growing tree species that are native to Appalachian riparian areas. These types of trees would rapidly establish a canopy cover, stabilize the soil, and impede invasive plant species which would, in turn, provide high-quality refuges for stream salamanders.
Key words: Canopy cover, coal mining, Desmognathus, Eurycea, headwater streams, surface mining.
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