Mitochondrial DNA sequence data were used to examine the phylogeographic history of Steller's sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) in relation to the presence of Plio-Pleistocene insular refugia. Cytochrome b and control region sequences from 336 Steller's sea lions reveal phylogenetic lineages associated with continental refugia south of the ice sheets in North America and Eurasia. Phylogenetic analysis suggests the genetic structure of E. jubatus is the result of Pleistocene glacial geology, which caused the elimination and subsequent reappearance of suitable rookery habitat during glacial and interglacial periods. The cyclic nature of geological change produced a series of independent population expansions, contractions and isolations that had analogous results on Steller's sea lions and other marine and terrestrial species. Our data show evidence of four glacial refugia in which populations of Steller's sea lions diverged. These events occurred from approximately 60 000 to 180 000 years BP and thus preceded the last glacial maximum.