COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - On the 13th floor of the tallest building in town, Steve Sharkey, vice president of Picolan Inc., pulls out his plans for the Northgate development. It's a 1,200-acre residential and commercial development at the edge of town, and it's been under construction by phases for nearly 15 years.
A few years ago, Sharkey thought the project was finally on its way to completion. But in the spring of 1998, the Preble's meadow jumping mouse gained federal protection as a threatened species, and a few of the mice were discovered on the north end of Picolan's property.
So instead of breaking more ground, Sharkey started plodding through the complicated permitting process set in motion by an Endangered Species Act listing. He needed approval for his project from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now, he doesn't know if he can go ahead with his project, and he's not sure the time and money he has invested in working with the agency has been worth it.
"If we went through the process, we were told, we'd look like some kind of good guys," he says. "Let me tell you, there is no value to being a good guy."
The 2-ounce Preble's mouse is unobtrusive - it hibernates for eight months out of the year, and sleeps away the summer days - but its listing has caused a furor on the Front Range, all the way from southern Wyoming to Colorado Springs.
"It wouldn't be a problem if Preble's lived in a larger area, but it just happens to be stuck in between the plains and the mountains, where people have chosen to move in, too," says Peter Plage of the Fish and Wildlife Service's Colorado office. "Here, land uses are changing from grasslands and shrub habitat to parking lots and condos. This species gets right in the middle of that."
The Preble's mouse is one of the first threatened species to collide with development in the Denver metro area, where the population is expected to grow by 40 percent in the next two decades. Since the mouse's future may depend on the cooperation of private landowners, the Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to convince them that it's worth it to be good guys.
At the same time, some environmentalists hope they can use the tiny mouse and the Endangered Species Act to do something that's been impossible so far: slow down the area's growth and save some of the last open space on the Front Range. They fear the agency's concessions are making their job harder.
"Why were mousetraps invented?"
The mouse's listing was a long time coming. When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, a mammalogist at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History told the Fish and Wildlife Service about the Preble's mouse and its dependence on the fragile streams of the Front Range foothills.
Almost 20 years later, the agency commissioned several surveys of Preble's habitat, covering the species' range. The surveys showed that the survival of the animal was tenuous, and that it deserved protection as a threatened species. Under threat of a lawsuit from the Boulder, Colo.-based Biodiversity Legal Foundation, the mouse was proposed to be listed in March 1997, and the listing became official in May 1998.
"It took 25 years to get listed, and the joke at the time was that's about the normal time it takes for the federal government to do something," Plage says ruefully.
Public reaction in the Denver metro area was immediate, and largely negative. "The mouse controversy is a combination of its being listed in an area where people don't have lots of experience with the (Endangered Species Act) and the fact that it's a mouse," says Plage. "There are a lot of people just venting on the idea that it's a rodent and disease-carrying."
Not to mention just venting, period. Since February, when the agency proposed a temporary plan for managing the mouse, it's received more than 600 written comments:
"You people have got to be the largest live cartoon on earth," said Albert Hurley, president of Hurley Homes Inc. in Colorado Springs.
"I don't think this mouse is any more necessary than the (Fish and Wildlife Service)," wrote Nick Dudash from Wyoming. "The longer you folks stay in business, the worse things get."
"If we like these animals so much, why were mousetraps invented?" wrote Jon Reddy. He's in eighth grade.
This spring, there was a stir in Castle Rock, a suburban community south of Denver, over the listing's potential interference with the construction of a new town hall. "We are trying to do things for our community, and then we get this," town mayor Al Parker told The Denver Post.
The story was also picked up by a Denver television station, which visited Castle Rock's main street and interviewed residents angry about the listing. As it turned out, the Fish and Wildlife Service had never contacted the town of Castle Rock; the controversy there was touched off by a private consultant, who had told the town there might be a conflict. Plans for the town hall are proceeding on schedule.
Looking for buy-in
"The fearmongering has got to stop - the spreading of the idea that this little mouse is going to bring an end to the economic way of life on the east front of the Rockies," says Jasper Carlton of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation. "These are scare tactics."
Since most of the mouse's habitat is located on private land, both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of Colorado have been working to address landowners' fears. When the mouse was first proposed for listing, the state created a working group composed of environmentalists, ranchers, developers, agency staffers and a team of scientists charged with gathering the latest information on the species.
"The working group's main question was: 'What can we do right now to conserve this animal and not list it?'" says Plage. "But there wasn't enough time to head off the listing. Even with all sorts of good intentions, a year wasn't enough time to ensure the security of the species."
It didn't reach its original goal, but the working group has continued to meet after the listing, and the state's science team is still collecting information to contribute to the recovery effort.
In December of last year, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt proposed an 18-month measure to temporarily protect the mouse. Called a 4(d) rule after its section in the Endangered Species Act, it's intended to set out guidelines for species protection during the development of a habitat conservation plan. Babbitt's interim plan would designate about 1,000 miles of stream in Colorado and Wyoming as either "mouse protection areas' or areas requiring further study.