Genetic rescue, the greater prairie chicken and the problem of conservation reliance in the Anthropocene

Document Type


Publication Title

Royal Society Open Science


A central question in conservation is how best to manage biodiversity, despite human domination of global processes (=Anthropocene). Common responses (i.e. translocations, genetic rescue) forestall potential extirpations, yet have an uncertain duration. A textbook example is the greater prairie chicken (GRPC: Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus), where translocations (1992–1998) seemingly rescued genetically depauperate Illinois populations. We re-evaluated this situation after two decades by genotyping 21 microsatellite loci from 1831 shed feathers across six leks in two counties over 4 years (2010–2013). Low migration rates (less than 1%) established each county as demographically independent, but with declining-population estimates (4 year average N=79). Leks were genetically similar and significantly bottlenecked, with low effective population sizes (average Ne =13.1; 4 year Ne/N=0.166). Genetic structure was defined by 12 significantly different family groups, with relatedness r=0.31>half-sib r=0.25. Average heterozygosity, indicating short-term survival, did not differ among contemporary, preand post-translocated populations, whereas allelic diversity did. Our results, the natural history of GRPC (i.e. few leks, male dominance hierarchies) and its controlled immigration suggest demographic expansion rather than genetic rescue. Legal protection under the endangered species act (ESA) may enhance recovery, but could exacerbate political–economic concerns on how best to manage ‘conservation-reliant’ species, for which GRPC is now an exemplar.



Publication Date