The tidewater goby (Eucyclogobius newberryi), an endangered species in the United States, occurs in a series of isolated coastal wetlands in California. Using historical presence-absence data and our own surveys, we estimated annual rates of extirpation and recolonization for several populations of the goby in southern California. As predicted, large wetlands had lower rates of extirpation than small wetlands. There was a negative but statistically nonsignificant correlation between recolonization rate and distance to the nearest northerly source population. Populations at small sites were sensitive to drought, presumably because droughts can eliminate suitable habitat at small wetlands. Populations in small wetlands have declined over time, even after accounting for variation in stream flow, supporting the species' endangered status. Our study emphasizes the need to understand metapopulation dynamics for conserving species where the unit of conservation is a local population. It is also emphasizes the importance of not treating metapopulations as identical units. Finally, our results provide a means for describing the decline of a species that is complex in time and space and provide insight into how to target protection measures among metapopulations.