The extant genetic variation of a population is the legacy of both long-term and recent population dynamics. Most practical methods for estimating effective population size are only able to detect recent effects on genetic variation and do not account for long-term fluctuations in species abundance. The utility of a maximum likelihood estimator of long-term effective population size based upon the coalescent theory of gene genealogies is examined for three endangered Colorado River fishes: humpback chub (Gila cypha), bonytail chub (Gila elegans) and razorback sucker (Xyrauchen texanus). Extant mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) variation in humpback chub suggests this species has retained its historical equilibrium genetic variation despite recent declines in abundance. The mtDNA variation in razorback suckers indicates the population was quite large and expanding prior to recent declines and that rare alleles still survive in the remnant populations. The remaining mtDNA variation in bonytail chub indicates that dramatic, recent declines may have already obliterated a substantial portion of any historical variation. The results from long-term effective population size analyses are consistent with known natural history and illustrate the utility of the analysis for endangered species management.