Isolation by distance (IBD) is a natural pattern not readily incorporated into theoretical models nor traditional metrics for differentiating populations, although clinal genetic differentiation can be characteristic of many wildlife species. Landscape features can also drive population structure additive to baseline IBD resulting in differentiation through isolation-by-resistance (IBR). We assessed the population genetic structure of boreal caribou across western Canada using nonspatial (STRUCTURE) and spatial (MEMGENE) clustering methods and investigated the relative contribution of IBD and IBR on genetic variation of 1,221 boreal caribou multilocus genotypes across western Canada. We further introduced a novel approach to compare the partitioning of individuals into management units (MU) and assessed levels of genetic connectivity under different MU scenarios. STRUCTURE delineated five genetic clusters while MEMGENE identified finer-scale differentiation across the study area. IBD was significant and did not differ for males and females both across and among detected genetic clusters. MEMGENE landscape analysis further quantified the proportion of genetic variation contributed by IBD and IBR patterns, allowing for the relative importance of spatial drivers, including roads, water bodies, and wildfires, to be assessed and incorporated into the characterization of population structure for the delineation of MUs. Local population units, as currently delineated in the boreal caribou recovery strategy, do not capture the genetic variation and connectivity of the ecotype across the study area. Here, we provide the tools to assess fine-scale spatial patterns of genetic variation, partition drivers of genetic variation, and evaluate the best management options for maintaining genetic connectivity. Our approach is highly relevant to vagile wildlife species that are of management and conservation concern and demonstrate varying degrees of IBD and IBR with clinal spatial genetic structure that challenges the delineation of discrete population boundaries.
Keywords: Moran’s eigenvector maps; Rangifer tarandus caribou; clinal differentiation; genetic connectivity; landscape genetics; population structure.