Most of the world's large rivers are fragmented by dams. Fragmentation of the river ecosystem alters migration patterns among fish populations and converts free-flowing river to reservoir habitat. In this study, we used an individual-based genetic metapopulation model to study the effects of fragmentation on the population viability and genetic diversity of a large-river fish, the white sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus. In the first of two simulation experiments, we fragmented a 200 km river reach by building 1 to 20 virtual dams. Increased fragmentation produced an exponential decline in the likelihood of persistence, but no extinction threshold to suggest a minimum viable length of river. Compounding isolation with the loss of free-flowing habitat did not further reduce viability until free-flowing habitat was nearly eliminated, at which point extinction was certain. Genetic diversity within (among) populations decreased (increased) as we 'built' the first several dams. Adding more dams caused the number of persisting populations to decline and eroded genetic diversity within and among populations. Our second simulation experiment evaluated the effects of different levels of upstream and downstream migration between river segments. The results of these migration experiments highlighted the importance of balanced migration rates. We found that extinction risk was high for populations linked by high downstream, and low upstream, migration rates, as is often the case in impounded rivers. Our results support the view that migration patterns will play a significant role in determining the viability of riverine fishes, such as the white sturgeon, in river ecosystems fragmented by dams.
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