A mouse divided


The twisting tale of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse took another turn yesterday as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Wyoming populations of the rodent had become adequately viable to warrant their removal from Endangered Species Act protection. This rather protracted controversy has historically centered around the question of whether or not the Preble's meadow jumping mouse is genetically distinct from the five other subspecies in the region. But the Service says that is no longer an issue, admitting that the scientific consensus points to a divergence between the subspecies in numerous physical and behavioral traits and therefore the mouse is eligible for federal protection.

However, because Wyoming populations of the mouse seem to be growing, and because there is little land development in Wyoming, the Service has decided to provide protection exclusively for the Colorado populations of the mouse. While Colorado's Front Range mouse population is constantly under threat as its stream-side habitat is developed, the Service reasons, Wyoming's populations will face few threats besides continued farming and ranching. As the Service explains, "Continuation of these long-standing activities does not appear to pose a threat to existing Preble’s populations. In addition, there is no indication that these agricultural practices are likely to change in the foreseeable future in ways that would affect Preble’s populations."

The decision comes after months of comment and review but has already been met with fresh controversy. Rocky Mountain News reports that Erin Robertson, a senior staff biologist with the Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems, is outraged: "Wyoming has some of the best recovery habitat for the mouse, and it makes no sense to cut it out of protection." The Center, along with other environmental groups, is prepared to file suit to restore the mouse's threatened status in Wyoming.

In its own article, the Center points to some of the scientific reviews of the decision:

"In official peer reviews of the proposal finalized today, scientists sharply criticized the Service for failing to rely on credible science. For example, Dr. Thomas Nupp wrote, 'It seems illogical that the threats to the subspecies would change substantially at the state line between Wyoming and Colorado.... doesn’t it make sense to preserve habitat that is not eminently threatened with destruction?...It seems to be chasing one’s tail to place a degrading habitat under regulatory protection, while removing protection from a less threatened habitat....[The Service] has not presented a strong argument that substantial threats in the Wyoming portion of the range are unlikely.'"

And so the battle rages on. For now, the Preble's meadow jumping mouse will remain in a peculiar state, with half its population protected, and half vulnerable to whatever might come its way in the (not so) wilds of Wyoming.

Timeline of Preble's Meadow Jumping Mouse Protection:

  • 1995: After the publication of numerous scientific studies recommending the mouse be protected, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces that it will begin the process of reviewing the status of the subspecies.
  • May 1998: The Service lists Preble's as threatened in its entire range, providing federal protection for the subspecies.
  • June 2003: The Service designates specific critical habitat for the mouse.
  • December 2003: The Denver Museum of Nature and Science releases a genetic study authored by conservation biologist Dr. Rob Roy Ramey II (and funded in large part by the state of Wyoming) indicating that the Preble's is not genetically divergent enough to be recognized as a distinct subspecies and is therefore ineligible for federal protection. The study is revised over the next couple of years, but the findings remain the same. The state of Wyoming immediately petitions the Service for the Preble's to be removed from federal protection.
  • February 2005: The Service issues a finding on the petition, recommending the mouse be removed from the federal list of threatened species.
  • August 2005: Dr. Ramey's study, after extensive peer review, is published in the journal Animal Conservation.
  • January 2006: Geneticist Tim King releases a second study commissioned by the Service that finds the opposite conclusion to Dr. Ramey's: the mouse is a distinct subspecies and should remain protected.
  • February 2006: The Service extends the decision process an additional six months due to "substantial disagreement regarding the sufficiency or accuracy of the available data."
  • June 2007: The Service issues an internal memo regarding the influence of former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie McDonald in the process to remove Preble's from protection. The memo reveals that McDonald, who was appointed by President Bush, was influential in moving the process forward even though Dr. Ramey's study had not yet been published and had only been approved in its entirety by three of the fourteen peer reviewers.
  • November 2007: The Service issues a revised proposal to remove the mouse from the list of threatened and endangered species in Wyoming but continue protection in Colorado.
  • June 2008: After a public comment and decision period, the Service approves the revised proposal.
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