Comparison of Patterns of Genetic Variation and Demographic History in the Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus): Relevance for Conservation

Robert M. Zink*
Bell Museum and Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, 55108, USA

© 2014 Robert M. Zink

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: ( This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the Bell Museum and Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, 55108, USA; Tel: 612 624 7207; Fax: 612 624 6777; E-mail:


The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) was once widespread in western North America but its range has contracted by an uncertain degree owing to anthropogenic and natural causes. Concern over population declines has led to its proposed listing as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Detailed genetic and demographic analyses of this species throughout its range are available but heretofore have not been compared. Reduced genetic variability is often taken as a proxy for declining populations, but rarely are there quantitative population estimates with which to compare. I compared published mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region sequences, microsatellite allele frequencies at seven loci, and estimates of numbers of males per lek, number of active leks, percent decline in the best population models, and the probability (P) of Ne < 50 in 30 years and P(Ne < 500) in 100 years, at two spatial scales, 45 local population samples and 16 larger aggregates of samples. When excluding the populations from the Columbia Basin, which show little genetic diversity and are statistical outliers, there were no consistent relationships between estimates of genetic variation and demographic trends across the remainder of the range at either spatial scale. A measure of inbreeding derived from microsatellite data was also not related to population trends. Thus, despite habitat reduction and range fragmentation, the greater sage-grouse does not exhibit expected genetic signatures of declining populations. Possibly, the mtDNA and microsatellite data are insufficiently sensitive to detect population declines that have occurred over the span of a half century. Alternatively, only when populations are reduced to the levels seen in the Columbia Basin will genetic effects be seen, suggesting that the bulk of the range of the greater sage-grouse is not currently in genetic peril.

Keywords: Conservation genetics, heterozygosity, inbreeding, microsatellite loci, mitochondrial DNA, population structure.