Can the Preble's mouse trap growth on Colorado's Front Range?

  • Habitat of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Preble's meadow jumping mouse

    Wendy Shattil/Bob Rozinski photo
  • Peter Plage, Fish and Wildlife Service

    Michelle Nijhuis photo
  • Neil Levine, Earthlaw

    Michelle Nijhuis photo
  • Chris Pague, The Nature Conservancy

    Michelle Nijhuis photo

Page 2

In these areas, developers and ranchers would have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service about their impact on the mouse. Outside these areas, mice killed by legal activities, like irrigation, cattle grazing and construction, would not be considered "take" under the Endangered Species Act.

The rule is designed to give private landowners some guidance about what they can and can't do in mouse habitat. It's also meant to take some pressure off the Fish and Wildlife Service. Without measures like the 4(d) rule, says Plage, the agency would have to rely on strict enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, and two overworked staffers would have to review all activities that could harm the mouse or its habitat.

"It's an effort to get buy-in from the farmers and others," Plage says of the rule. "For an 18-month period, they can continue what they're doing, while we refine what activities are compatible" with the survival of the mouse.

Some environmentalists think the state and the federal government are working too hard to get buy-in from farmers and developers, and say the rule allows far too much leeway for habitat destruction.

"A 4(d) rule is supposed to provide for the recovery of the mouse," says Neil Levine, an Earthlaw staff attorney representing the Biodiversity Legal Foundation. "This rule allows for continued development in riparian areas, allows people to continue to take out water from the riparian habitat, and doesn't include a monitoring protocol. We need a rule that protects the mouse - this just rubber-stamps what was going on before with the authority of the (Endangered Species Act)."

A controversial middle road

Steve Sharkey's planned Northgate development in Colorado Springs adjoins an existing development - houses on five-acre lots, most of which have been around for a decade or more. Many houses in the neighborhood look out over the Smith Creek drainage, the very same hollow owned by Picolan Inc. It's also home to a population of Preble's mice.

"This is one of the last undeveloped valleys on the east side of the I-25 corridor with a perennial stream in it," says Herb Vore, who lives near Smith Creek and is active with the Northgate Open Space Committee. The local group is urging Picolan to scale down its plans.

"One reason we're pushing so hard is that once that's gone, there's nothing left. The Preble's jumping mouse is our big weapon here."

Many environmentalists see the listing of the Preble's mouse as a way to protect the foothill streams on the Front Range, fragile habitats attractive to both humans and wildlife. "The mouse is symptomatic of the destruction of this important part of the ecosystem on the east side of the Rockies," says Jasper Carlton of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation.

But new strategies like the 4(d) rule make environmentalists wonder if the Endangered Species Act will be an effective conservation tool in urban areas. "The truth of the matter is, we haven't seen the (Endangered Species Act) slow down development at all," says Neil Levine. "We've seen it slow down logging in the Southwest and Northwest, but not development."

It's also not clear that the rule, which Plage calls a "cutting-edge" approach for the Fish and Wildlife Service, has helped to gain the backing of developers like Sharkey. While he says he's willing to continue with the permitting process, it's clear his patience is wearing thin. Next time, he might decide not to cooperate with the agency.

"I did not know (the Endangered Species Act) would be as onerous as it's turned out to be," says Sharkey. He calls the lack of scientific information "a major frustration."

Several Front Range counties have now started to work on habitat conservation plans for the mouse. The agency expects the temporary rule to be in place later in the fall, but the Biodiversity Legal Foundation says it's prepared to sue over the rule. So far, the agency's middle road seems to have created more controversy than it's extinguished.

"We need to figure out how to engage the private landowner to really make conservation happen, not just avoid a law," says Chris Pague, head of the state's science team and a conservation scientist with The Nature Conservancy. "We need to get them to ask, "What do we need to do to make things work?" "

That hasn't happened yet. Still, Pague and other scientists believe the outlook is hopeful for the mouse. Although it did take nearly a quarter of a century to win federal protection, the Preble's mouse is in better shape, and perhaps more resilient, than many other listed species.

"People don't have to leave altogether, they just need to change their behavior to accommodate the needs of the species," says Anne Ruggles, a field assistant for a Colorado Museum of Natural History research project on the Preble's mouse. The population she studies, one of the healthiest known Preble's populations, lives just outside of Boulder near a popular walking trail.

"It's a great project," Pague says of the recovery effort. "If you include Wyoming, we've at least got tens of thousands of mice to work with.

"We're no longer dealing with the species that have only 200 to 600 animals left, like the peregrine falcon or the grizzly bear," he adds. "Most of those species have been listed. Now we're getting to things that are in vast decline, but not endangered in the same sense, like prairie dogs and the Preble's mouse. We have to deal with them as early as possible. If we wait because of fear, it just gets worse."

Michelle Nijhuis reports for High Country News.

You can contact ...

  • Chris Pague, The Nature Conservancy, 303/444-2950;
  • Peter Plage, the Colorado office of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Lakewood, 303/236-7904;
  • Jasper Carlton, Biodiversity Legal Foundation, 303/442-3037.
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