Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

The mouse that roared: $17 million price tag to protect Preble's in El Paso County

R. SCOTT RAPPOLD Updated: December 15, 2010 at 12:00 am

The effort to preserve habitat for the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse in northern El Paso County could cost developers and landowners up to $17.7 million over 20 years, according to a just-released analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency announced Tuesday it is designating 34,935 acres along Front Range rivers and streams as critical habitat for the tiny mouse, including 3,295 acres along 38 miles of stream banks in the Monument Creek watershed.

A small stretch of Trout Creek in northern Teller County is also becoming critical habitat. The decision was published in the Federal Register Tuesday.

The mouse lives only on the Front Range of Colorado and Wyoming, and its numbers have been depleted by development, especially in Colorado. It has been listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act since 1998.

But it is similar to a more common western jumping mouse – only genetic testing can tell the difference – and critics have long argued the protection is not worth the extra expenses and headaches.

Northern El Paso County has some of the greatest numbers in the state, and according to an economic analysis also released Tuesday by the agency, its protection would cost more than anywhere else in Colorado. That’s because Preble’s habitat overlaps with some of the highest-growth areas of the county, and the analysis predicts the area could see from 1,700 to 4,200 homes built over the next 20 years.

For developers, that means having to pay for a consultation with the agency before construction  – at a cost of up to $17,400 per project here – and taking steps to mitigate loss of mouse habitat.

Some land in each new development will have to be set aside for the mouse, marked by signs and separated by fences. Grazing and mowing will be restricted in open spaces. Dogs will have to be kept on leashes and outdoor cats will not be allowed.

These efforts could cost up to $660,000 for large projects, along with as much as $167,000 per project for restoring the land set aside for habitat. The agency estimates developers will also face $384,000 in delay costs for large projects, as researchers study the impact of projects in mouse habitat.

The numbers are based on a 346-unit development here that would have to set aside 14 acres for the mouse.

The impacts could be felt beyond builders. The economic analysis says the regulations could have a chilling effect on development, leading to 666 to 1,111 fewer houses being built in northern El Paso County through 2029 and the potential loss of 175 jobs.

The analysis predicts mouse mitigation could add $212,000 to area road projects through 2029.

Environmental groups applauded the critical habitat decision, while developers said it will negatively impact the economy.

Doug Quimby, president of La Plata Communities, the developer of much of the Briargate area, and chairman of the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp., said his company spent millions setting aside hundreds of acres of valuable land for mouse habitat.

“Based on what we had to spend, an estimate of $17 million for the rest of El Paso County sounds awfully low to me,” he said Wednesday.

While he agrees the designation could impact projects, he said developers knew this was coming.

“It has been listed as a threatened species for years now. They’re generally aware of the fact they’re going to have to address those issues, provide habitat and perhaps actually spend money on education and improvements, redesign certain things to make it work,” Quimby said.

The agency in 2003 designated critical habitat for the mouse – none in El Paso County – but said in 2007 it would re-examine the decision following a report by the Interior Department’s inspector general. The report found that a former deputy assistant secretary overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service applied political pressure, resulting in land in Boulder, Douglas and El Paso counties being left out.

The amount of critical habitat announced Tuesday is less than the 184 miles of rivers and streams and almost 29 square miles that the agency proposed adding in 2009.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says some land was excluded because other conservation or management plans already protect it, and some areas near man-made structures like homes, roads or airport runways won’t be essential to conserving the species.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Here's what some local officials and developers had to say in October 2009 when expansion of protection for the Preble's meadow jumping mouse was proposed.

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