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Genetic and environmental indicators of climate change vulnerability for desert bighorn sheep

August 26, 2020

Assessments of organisms’ vulnerability to potential climatic shifts are increasingly common. Such assessments are often conducted at the species level and focused primarily on the magnitude of anticipated climate change (i.e., climate exposure). However, wildlife management would benefit from population-level assessments that also incorporate measures of local or regional potential for organismal adaptation to change. Estimates of genetic diversity, gene flow, and landscape connectivity can address this need and complement climate exposure estimates to establish management priorities at broad to local scales. We provide an example of this holistic approach for desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) within and surrounding lands administered by the U.S. National Park Service. We used genetic and environmental data from 62 populations across the southwestern U.S. to delineate genetic structure, evaluate relationships between genetic diversity and isolation, and estimate relative climate vulnerability for populations as a function of five variables associated with species’ responses to climate change: genetic diversity, genetic isolation, geographic isolation, forward climate velocity within a population’s habitat patch (a measure of geographic movement rate required for an organism to maintain constant climate conditions), and maximum elevation within the habitat patch (a measure of current climate stress, as lower maximum elevation is associated with higher temperature, lower precipitation, and lower population persistence). Genetic structure analyses revealed a high-level division between populations in southeastern Utah and populations in the remainder of the study area, which were further differentiated into four lower-level genetic clusters. Genetic diversity decreased with population isolation, whereas genetic differentiation increased, but these patterns were stronger for native populations than for translocated populations. Populations exhibited large variation in predicted vulnerability across the study area with respect to all variables, but native populations occupying relatively intact landscapes, such as Death Valley and Grand Canyon national parks, had the lowest overall vulnerability. These results provide local and regional context for conservation and management decisions regarding bighorn populations in a changing climate. Our study further demonstrates how assessments combining multiple factors could allow a more integrated response, such as increasing efforts to maintain connectivity and thus potential for adaptation in areas experiencing rapid climate change.

Publication Year 2020
Title Genetic and environmental indicators of climate change vulnerability for desert bighorn sheep
DOI 10.3389/fevo.2020.00279
Authors Tyler G. Creech, Clinton W. Epps, John D. Wehausen, Rachel S. Crowhurst, Jef R. Jaeger, Kathleen Longshore, Brandon Holton, William B. Sloan, Ryan J. Monello
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Index ID 70240330
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center