Genetic and Environmental Indicators of Climate Change Vulnerability for Desert Bighorn Sheep

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution



First page number:


Last page number:



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.


Connectivity; Genetic Diversity; Genetic Structure; Ovis Canadensis; Vulnerability


Ecology and Evolutionary Biology | Life Sciences | Population Biology



UNLV article access

Search your library