Bearded vulture populations in the Western Palearctic have experienced a severe decline during the last two centuries that has led to the near extinction of the species in Europe. In this study we analyse the sequence variation at the mitochondrial control region throughout the species range to infer its recent evolutionary history and to evaluate the current genetic status of the species. This study became possible through the extensive use of museum specimens to study populations now extinct. Phylogenetic analysis revealed the existence of two divergent mitochondrial lineages, lineage A occurring mainly in Western European populations and lineage B in African, Eastern European and Central Asian populations. The relative frequencies of haplotypes belonging to each lineage in the different populations show a steep East–West clinal distribution with maximal mixture of the two lineages in the Alps and Greece populations. A genealogical signature for population growth was found for lineage B, but not for lineage A; futhermore the Clade B haplotypes in western populations and clade A haplo-types in eastern populations are recently derived, as revealed by their peripheral location in median-joining haplotype networks. This phylogeographical pattern suggests allopatric differentiation of the two lineages in separate Mediterranean and African or Asian glacial refugia, followed by range expansion from the latter leading to two secondary contact suture zones in Central Europe and North Africa. High levels of among-population differentiation were observed, although these were not correlated with geographical distance. Due to the marked genetic structure, extinction of Central European populations in the last century re-sulted in the loss of a major portion of the genetic diversity of the species. We also found direct evidence for the effect of drift altering the genetic composition of the remnant Pyrenean population after the demographic bottleneck of the last century. Our results argue for the management of the species as a single population, given the apparent ecological exchangeability of extant stocks, and support the ongoing reintroduction of mixed ancestry birds in the Alps and planned reintroductions in Southern Spain.