Oyler-McCance, S.J., T.B. Cross, J.R. Row, M.K. Schwartz, D.E. Naugle, J.A. Fike, K. Winiarski, and B.C. Fedy. New strategies for characterizing genetic structure in wide-ranging, continuously distributed species: A greater sage-grouse case study. PLoS ONE 17:e0274189.
Characterizing genetic structure across a species’ range is relevant for management and conservation as it can be used to define population boundaries and quantify connectivity. Wide-ranging species residing in continuously distributed habitat pose substantial challenges for the characterization of genetic structure as many analytical methods used are less effective when isolation by distance is an underlying biological pattern. Here, we illustrate strategies for overcoming these challenges using a species of significant conservation concern, the Greater Sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), providing a new method to identify centers of genetic differentiation and combining multiple methods to help inform management and conservation strategies for this and other such species. Our objectives were to (1) describe large-scale patterns of population genetic structure and gene flow and (2) to characterize genetic subpopulation centers across the range of Greater Sage-grouse. Samples from 2,134 individuals were genotyped at 15 microsatellite loci. Using standard STRUCTURE and spatial principal components analyses, we found evidence for four or six areas of large-scale genetic differentiation and, following our novel method, 12 subpopulation centers of differentiation. Gene flow was greater, and differentiation reduced in areas of contiguous habitat (eastern Montana, most of Wyoming, much of Oregon, Nevada, and parts of Idaho). As expected, areas of fragmented habitat such as in Utah (with 6 subpopulation centers) exhibited the greatest genetic differentiation and lowest effective migration. The subpopulation centers defined here could be monitored to maintain genetic diversity and connectivity with other subpopulation centers. Many areas outside subpopulation centers are contact zones where different genetic groups converge and could be priorities for maintaining overall connectivity. Our novel method and process of leveraging multiple different analyses to find common genetic patterns provides a path forward to characterizing genetic structure in wide-ranging, continuously distributed species.