The Preble’s meadow jumping mouse makes for an unlikely villain. It’s an unassuming, nocturnal rodent that spends its life scurrying through streamside brush, gnawing on bugs and seeds. When imperiled, as it often is by owls and foxes, it can leap three feet in the air. Sixty percent of its body length is tail. And, in the minds of some politicians and developers, it stands for everything that’s wrong with American governance.
That’s because the mouse, whose domain stretches from southeastern Wyoming to Colorado’s Front Range, is protected under the legislation that many lawmakers love to hate: the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The critter’s habitat, say biologists, is vanishing, degraded by suburban sprawl, grazing and irrigation diversions. Meanwhile, some state officials claim the rodent isn’t a genetically distinct species, and that protecting the Preble's has cost the American West millions of dollars in foregone development. The only mouse to spend more time in the national spotlight than Preble’s might be Mickey.
The latest round of mouse-capades flared up last week, when news broke that the animal’s endangered status could delay federal projects to help the Front Range recover from last fall’s flooding. The reaction was furious – and predictable. “For the federal government to put concerns of a field mouse ahead of Colorado families struggling to recover from the floods is deeply concerning,” State Rep. Jerry Sonnenburg blustered. Rep. Cory Gardner, who told CBS Denver that the rodent-delayed recovery was “absolutely ridiculous,” did Sonnenburg one better: In a letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe, Gardner demanded that FWS waive the Endangered Species Act so that recovery could proceed apace. Twitter amplified the outrage, as Twitter is wont to do.
The sole catalyst for the outrage was an innocuous two-page background paper that the Federal Emergency Management Agency – the primary coordinator of the recovery – distributed to Colorado officials on February 3. In the paper, FEMA warned (rather vaguely) that recovery efforts could harm mouse habitat, that legally required ESA reviews may delay projects, and that local officials who didn’t adhere to environmental laws could lose federal funding. Although it’s a long way from “may cause some delays” to headlines like “Mouse cripples Colorado flood-recovery efforts,” there’s no denying that, to the nearly 2,000 Coloradans who lost their homes, the report likely sounded callous.
But it also wasn’t true, says FWS biologist Craig Hansen. “I’m not sure why that statement was made, but it’s not accurate,” he insists. Hansen says that FWS has so far reviewed five flood recovery projects, such as bridge and culvert replacements, and approved most in a matter of hours. The longest evaluation, he says, has been two days. “No delays have occurred, or will occur,” he says. FEMA public affairs officer Ed Conley corroborates Hansen’s account. “Everything is fine, there have been no delays, the [recovery] money’s flowing,” Conley says.
According to Hansen, FWS has extensive protocols for avoiding endangered species delays during crises like the September floods. When disaster strikes, the agency shifts into emergency consultation mode – a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach that allows responders to do their job without being handcuffed by ESA reviews. (The agency does provide guidelines – in the case of the mouse, avoid trampling plants, control erosion, restore degraded habitat, that sort of thing – but those are recommendations, not mandates.)
Later, when the post-disaster response kicks into gear, FWS transitions to a more streamlined version of its usual process, evaluating multiple projects simultaneously for faster approval. And while the agency does issue restrictions on recovery projects, they’re typically modest, such as limiting vehicles and equipment to disturbed areas rather than allowing them to venture onto untouched habitat. (FEMA also hired three biologists, including two who used to work with FWS, to help the agency expedite evaluation.) “We’ve been working on hundreds of recovery projects, and only a handful have needed ESA review,” Conley says. “Local officials have told us there have been no problems.”
It’s natural, of course, to take a healthy dose of skepticism before swallowing agencies’ claims that everything’s a-okay. But if there’s any evidence that rodent-related delays are actually occurring, the media hasn’t found it: A recent story in the Greeley Tribune interviewed officials from Greeley, Milliken, and Evans, none of whom said the mouse was holding things up. For all the handwringing, there hasn’t been a single report of delayed recovery.
By now, though, the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse should be accustomed to accusations of obstruction. Back in 1999, Michelle Nijhuis reported in High Country News that the species, which had been listed the previous year, had already incurred the wrath of Colorado Springs residents by stymying development. When FWS released a draft plan for managing Preble’s, one eighth-grader commented, “If we like these animals so much, why were mouse traps invented?”
Over the next 15 years, the mouse dodged one trap after another. In 2003, scientists from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science asserted that Preble’s was genetically identical to a more common cousin, leading to a bitter, years-long battle over its taxonomic and conservation status. And in 2008, FWS moved to delist half the population, arguing that the mouse no longer needed protection in Wyoming. Yet the creature has clung to the list: a 2006 scientific panel found that Preble’s was, in fact, a distinct subspecies (although a new genetic analysis, which suggests that the mouse’s lineage extends as far north as Alaska, now threatens to rekindle that debate), and last year FWS decided to keep it listed throughout its entire range, finding that habitat continues to deteriorate.
While it’s vital that emergency response continues to move swiftly, Preble’s or no Preble’s, the flood recovery may wind up saving both mice and human property. By protecting the critter’s streamside habitat, restoration efforts could also mitigate against the next flood. “People hear the word ‘mouse’ and they think it’s a common rodent they might find in their barn,” Hansen says. “That’s not true. (Preble’s) is a rare species, and it’s the canary in the coal mine for our riparian habitats.”
Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.