The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday that it has begun a yearlong process to remove the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse from federal protection, a decision that could have far-reaching implications for El Paso County.
The decision is based on mounting DNA evidence suggesting that the mouse is not a distinct subspecies, as previously thought. The announcement was hailed by a coalition of water suppliers and home builders who said the mouse has cost them millions for no good reason. “It’s a good day,” said Kent Holsinger, a lawyer who represents Coloradans for Water Conservation and Development, a coalition of farm bureaus, water suppliers and home builders that petitioned the Wildlife Service to delist the mouse. A second petition was submitted by Wyoming. “We have long had information that there were so many mice in so many more places than thought,” Holsinger said. “We knew the mouse shouldn’t be listed.” But Erin Robertson, staff biologist for the Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems, decried the Wildlife Service’s preliminary decision. She said that protecting the mouse and its riparian habitat also has protected Front Range residents from the worst impacts of development. “This proposal is a devastating blow to open space across the Front Range, to good science and to the public interest,” said Jeremy Nichols, conservation director for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. The move would have repercussions across the region. Northern El Paso County contains a good chunk of the 57,000 acres of mostly private land along Colorado’s Front Range and in Wyoming that the federal agency had declared areas of critical mouse habitat. Until the agency makes a final decision, the mouse remains protected. People or companies wanting to build near certain streams and creeks along the Front Range must develop plans — sometimes expensive ones — to protect the mouse and mitigate damage to its habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated that El Paso County would bear the greatest cost of any county in Colorado or Wyoming — as much as $103 million in the next 10 years — for protecting the mouse. The Preble’s mouse was designated threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1998. At the time, the mouse was thought to be a distinct subspecies of jumping mice and was being threatened by vanishing habitat. That premise was shaken by a study last year by Rob Roy Ramey of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Ramey compared mitochondrial DNA — genetic material passed from mother to daughter — and found that the Preble’s mouse in Colorado and southern Wyoming is the same subspecies as the Bear Lodge jumping mouse found in northern Wyoming, eastern Montana and South Dakota. If that analysis holds up, it means there are millions of jumping mice over a vast area in the West. Ralph Morganweck, the Denver-based regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Ramey’s study was recently peer-reviewed by 14 scientists, eight of whom supported Ramey’s findings. “As a result, we felt it prudent to go ahead and do a proposal to delist the Preble’s,” he said. Morganweck said the service will take public comment and perform more research in the next year before making a final decision. Specifically, he said the service wants to see the results of a study Ramey plans on the nuclear DNA of the Preble’s and Bear Lodge jumping mice to confirm they are the same subspecies. The agency also will do field work to see if the habitat of the Bear Lodge mouse is in good shape or if it is threatened. Finally, Morganweck said the agency’s scientists will try to decide whether the Preble’s mouse — even though genetically identical to the Bear Lodge mouse — has evolved into a “distinct population segment.” Such a designation could merit the mouse remaining under government protection. In the interim, the mouse’s protected status remains in place. That designation raises some thorny issues, said Holsinger and Craig Manson, an assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Holsinger said people who want to build homes, commercial buildings or even water projects in Preble’s habitat will have to decide whether it’s cheaper to delay the projects for a year, in the hopes the mouse is delisted, or to spend the money on a plan now. Manson, whose department oversees the Wildlife Service, said there’s never been a proposed delisting of a species after so much money has been spent to protect it. He said if the agency withdraws protection from the Preble’s, it will raise questions about whether the government can hold people to commitments they have made to protect the mouse. Morganweck said his agency has given substantial grants, including $600,000 recently to El Paso County, to help local governments cover the cost of developing Preble’s habitat-conservation plans. But he said there is no provision for the government to repay private landowners for the cost of developing mitigation plans, should the Preble’s be delisted. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0197 or firstname.lastname@example.org