Evolutionary processes can be strongly affected by landscape features. In vagile carnivores that disperse widely, however, genetic structure has been found to be minimal. Using microsatellite DNA primers developed for other mustelids, we found that populations of a vagile forest carnivore, the fisher (Martes pennanti), exhibit high genetic structure (FST = 0.45, SE = 0.07) and limited gene flow (Nm < 1) within a >1,600-km narrow strip of forested habitat; that genetic diversity decreases from core to periphery; and that populations do not show an equilibrium pattern of isolation-by-distance. Genetic structure was greater at the periphery than at the core of the distribution and our data fit a 1-dimensional model of stepping-stone range expansion. Multiple lines of paleontological and genetic evidence suggest that the fisher recently (<5,000 years ago) expanded into the mountain forests of the Pacific coast. The reduced dimensionality of the distribution of the fisher in western coastal forests appears to have contributed to the high levels of structure and decreasing diversity from north to south. These effects were likely exacerbated by human-caused changes to the environment. The low genetic diversity and high genetic structure of populations in the southern Sierra Nevada suggest that populations in this part of the geographic range are vulnerable to extinction.
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