Historical and Contemporary DNA Indicate Fisher Decline and Isolation Occurred Prior to the European Settlement of California
Abstract Establishing if species contractions were the result of natural phenomena or human induced landscape changes is essential for managing natural populations. Fishers (Martes pennanti) in California occur in two geographically and genetically isolated populations in the northwestern mountains and southern Sierra Nevada. Their isolation is hypothesized to have resulted from a decline in abundance and distribution associated with European settlement in the 1800s. However, there is little evidence to establish that fisher occupied the area between the two extant populations at that time. We analyzed 10 microsatellite loci from 275 contemporary and 21 historical fisher samples (1880–1920) to evaluate the demographic history of fisher in California. We did not find any evidence of a recent (post-European) bottleneck in the northwestern population. In the southern Sierra Nevada, genetic subdivision within the population strongly influenced bottleneck tests. After accounting for genetic subdivision, we found a bottleneck signal only in the northern and central portions of the southern Sierra Nevada, indicating that the southernmost tip of these mountains may have acted as a refugium for fisher during the anthropogenic changes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Using a coalescent-based Bayesian analysis, we detected a 90% decline in effective population size and dated the time of decline to over a thousand years ago. We hypothesize that fisher distribution in California contracted to the two current population areas pre-European settlement, and that portions of the southern Sierra Nevada subsequently experienced another more recent bottleneck post-European settlement.