Genetic and Demographic Analyses of Species at Risk

Science Center Objects

Genetic and demographic analyses are key to understanding mechanisms of population and species declines and recovery potential. They are equally important to managers assessing risk of extinction relative to the provisions of the Endangered Species Act, and for establishing recovery goals and planning recovery actions. In addition to the methodologically and conceptually complex nature of these studies, substantial effort is also needed to translate results and implications for policymakers, management agencies, and stakeholders. Further, much of this research is pivotal to high-profile controversial conservation issues, and results receive scrutiny from varied parties (international, federal, state, NGO, industry), as well as considerable press coverage.

Much of the work on these species-at-risk projects are based on molecular analyses carried out in the Conservation Genetics Laboratory. This was one of the first USGS genetics labs to address endangered species issues and remains at the cutting edge of technology and policy. For example, their recent development of high-throughput sequencing protocols for the lab has revolutionized the efficiency and rigor in which new analyses can be carried out. Continuing efforts to bridge the gap between endangered species policy and genetics, via specific studies and review papers, have been unique in the USGS. Examples of species examined include Spotted Owls, California Condors, Piping Plovers, Snowy Plovers, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Micronesian Kingfishers, Guam Rails, Mariana Swiftlets, Mariana Moorhens, Quino Checkerspot Butterfly, Oregon Slender Salamander, and others.

Conservation Genetics of Spotted Owls (1995-present)

In this ongoing project, FRESC scientists and collaborators have carried out analyses on many aspects of the genetic and demographic issues related to Spotted Owl conservation efforts. This work represents analyses of the largest avian genetic and demographic dataset known. Key benefits include providing an understanding of the genetic integrity of current populations and tools critical to ESA implementation for this species. One of the primary challenges dealing with the complexity of such a large dataset is that it exceeds the limits of most genetic statistical analyses programs. To date, we have used mtDNA, microsatellites, AFLPs and other markers to examine various aspects of population structure, genetic diversity, subspecies definitions, hybridization, and determination of evolutionary significant units in Spotted Owls. The latest discovery provides evidence for Pleistocene expansion of the Northern Spotted Owl as well as significant population genetic bottlenecks in every local and regional population examined. This is a significant technological advancement as well as critically important for conservation planning. We have also worked with colleagues at San Francisco State University to investigate the occurrence and impact of blood parasites in Spotted Owls. Currently, we are examining pedigree structure and how it relates to dispersal in the owls.


Susan Haig (USGS-FRESC), Mark Miller (USGS-FRESC), Thomas Mullins (USGS-FRESC), Eric Forsman (USFS), David Wiens (USGS-FRESC), Robert Anthony (Oregon State University)



Population Recovery of the California Condor (2007-present)

Starting in 2007, FRESC became involved with the California Condor Recovery effort. Susan Haig served on the six member AOU/California Audubon Society Blue Ribbon Panel that evaluated the recovery program for California Condors. As a result of this 2-year assignment, she launched a significant research effort to investigate the feasibility of reintroducing the birds back to their former range in the Pacific Northwest. Our research addresses questions essential to any potential reintroduction such as habitat availability, lead-poisoning potential, emerging mortality risks such as wind energy development, and other essential information needs. One important contribution includes publication of a new book that provides documentation of the occurrence of condors in the Pacific Northwest. Other aspects of the condor research program include analysis and modeling of condor movements and space use in California. This research is of critical interest to the USFWS and other management agencies as they consider major land and wind-energy development proposals within the condor's range. A final aspect is investigation of genetic diversity in the past and present using ancient DNA technology to reconstitute their previous population structure in the mid-1800s. These investigations are also suggesting (work in progress) that second species of condor inhabited North America at the same time as the California Condor.


Susan Haig (USGS-FRESC), Matthew Johnson (USFS), James Rivers (OSU), Jesse D’Elia (USFWS)