Determining causes of genetic isolation in a large carnivore (Ursus americanus) population to direct contemporary conservation measures
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The processes leading to genetic isolation influence a population's local extinction risk, and should thus be identified before conservation actions are implemented. Natural or human-induced circumstances can result in historical or contemporary barriers to gene flow and/or demographic bottlenecks. Distinguishing between these hypotheses can be achieved by comparing genetic diversity and differentiation in isolated vs. continuous neighboring populations. In Ontario, American black bears (Ursus americanus) are continuously distributed, genetically diverse, and exhibit an isolation-by-distance structuring pattern, except on the Bruce Peninsula (BP). To identify the processes that led to the genetic isolation of BP black bears, we modelled various levels of historical and contemporary migration and population size reductions using forward simulations. We compared simulation results with empirical genetic indices from Ontario black bear populations under different levels of geographic isolation, and conducted additional simulations to determine if translocations could help achieve genetic restoration. From a genetic standpoint, conservation concerns for BP black bears are warranted because our results show that: i) a recent demographic bottleneck associated with recently reduced migration best explains the low genetic diversity on the BP; and ii) under sustained isolation, BP black bears could lose between 70% and 80% of their rare alleles within 100 years. Although restoring migration corridors would be the most effective method to enhance long-term genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding, it is unrealistic to expect connectivity to be re-established. Current levels of genetic diversity could be maintained by successfully translocating 10 bears onto the peninsula every 5 years. Such regular translocations may be more practical than landscape restoration, because areas connecting the peninsula to nearby mainland black bear populations have been irreversibly modified by humans, and form strong barriers to movement.
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