Niche divergence or conservatism and phenotypic adaptation are important in lineage diversification. We used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), morphology and ecological niche models to examine these processes in three subspecies of Sage Sparrow (Artemisiospiza belli belli, A. b. canescens and A. b. nevadensis) that breed in bioclimatically diverse ecoregions in western North America. Overall, mtDNA and morphology are congruent with subspecies, ecoregion and bioclimatic niche. Niche divergence, rather than niche conservatism, accompanied by phenotypic adaptation, is associated with lineage diversification between subspecies. This diversification has occurred with and without physical barriers or accompanying genetic divergence. Populations of A. b. canescens are divided by a montane barrier into two bioclimatic regions (San Joaquin Valley, Mojave Desert), where they are indistinguishable phenotypically, but show distinctive genetic patterns. Although there is no physical barrier between A. b. canescens in the San Joaquin Valley and A. b. belli in the Coast Ranges, these populations occupy different bioclimatic niches and are phenotypically, but not genetically, diagnosable. Niche overlap is greatest between A. b. canescens from the Mojave Desert and A. b. nevadensis from the Great Basin, yet these subspecies maintain distinctive phenotypes and mtDNA, even in local secondary contact and sympatry. Palaeoclimatic niche models for the Last Glacial Maximum (c. 21 000 bp) and the Last Interglacial (c. 120 000 bp) suggest that ecoregionally distinct populations of Artemisiospiza belli experienced different Pleistocene range fluctuations and glacial refugia, with temporal niche conservatism. Populations probably reached their current distributions as favourable climates and habitats expanded after the last glaciation. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, ••, ••–••.