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Determining species distributions accurately is crucial to developing conservation and management strategies for imperiled species, but a challenging task for small populations. We evaluated the efficacy of environmental DNA (eDNA) analysis for improving detection and thus potentially refining the known distribution of Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) in the Methow and Okanogan Subbasins of the Upper Columbia River, which span the border between Washington, USA and British Columbia, Canada. We developed an assay to target a 90 base pair sequence of Chinook DNA and used quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) to quantify the amount of Chinook eDNA in triplicate 1-L water samples collected at 48 stream locations in June and again in August 2012. The overall probability of detecting Chinook with our eDNA method in areas within the known distribution was 0.77 (±0.05 SE). Detection probability was lower in June (0.62, ±0.08 SE) during high flows and at the beginning of spring Chinook migration than during base flows in August (0.93, ±0.04 SE). In the Methow subbasin, mean eDNA concentration was higher in August compared to June, especially in smaller tributaries, probably resulting from the arrival of spring Chinook adults, reduced discharge, or both. Chinook eDNA concentrations did not appear to change in the Okanogan subbasin from June to August. Contrary to our expectations about downstream eDNA accumulation, Chinook eDNA did not decrease in concentration in upstream reaches (0–120 km). Further examination of factors influencing spatial distribution of eDNA in lotic systems may allow for greater inference of local population densities along stream networks or watersheds. These results demonstrate the potential effectiveness of eDNA detection methods for determining landscape-level distribution of anadromous salmonids in large river systems.

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This document was originally published in Biological Conservation by Elsevier. This work is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivatives 4.0 license. Details regarding the use of this work can be found at: doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2014.11.025