Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) have been central to the development of management concepts associated with evolutionarily significant units (ESUs), yet there are still relatively few studies of genetic diversity within threatened and endangered ESUs for salmon or other species. We analyzed genetic variation at 10 microsatellite loci to evaluate spatial population structure and genetic variability in indigenous Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) across a large wilderness basin within a Snake River ESU. Despite dramatic 20th century declines in abundance, these populations retained robust levels of genetic variability. No significant genetic bottlenecks were found, although the bottleneck metric (M ratio) was significantly correlated with average population size and variability. Weak but significant genetic structure existed among tributaries despite evidence of high levels of gene flow, with the strongest genetic differentiation mirroring the physical segregation of fish from two sub-basins. Despite the more recent colonization of one sub-basin and differences between sub-basins in the natural level of fragmentation, gene diversity and genetic differentiation were similar between sub-basins. Various factors, such as the (unknown) genetic contribution of precocial males, genetic compensation, lack of hatchery influence, and high levels of current gene flow may have contributed to the persistence of genetic variability in this system in spite of historical declines. This unique study of indigenous Chinook salmon underscores the importance of maintaining natural populations in interconnected and complex habitats to minimize losses of genetic diversity within ESUs.
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