Is It or Isn’t It (Just Another Mouse)?

Why science alone will not settle the West’s endangered species dilemmas

  • Preble's meadow jumping mouse

    Federal Highway Administration
  • Rob Roy Ramey, during his tenure at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

    James Glader
  • Preble's mouse specimens at the Denver Museum of Natural History

    James Glader
  • Mouse Range

    Diane Sylvain
  • Urban sprawl on Colorado's Front Range, in Preble's meadow jumping mouse habitat

    Jacob Smith and Lighthawk
  • Preble's mouse skull at the Denver Museum of Natural History

    James Glader

Page 4

Ramey arrives dressed to perform in a sporty suit and a tie adorned with elephants and lions. He sits restively in the front row next to another suit — Wyoming’s assistant attorney general. "I want to pursue truth and I’m ready to do battle," Ramey says.

King, perhaps the tallest man in the room, is also the most reserved. Casually attired in jeans, and clearly determined to keep the focus on his research and not himself, he settles in an empty row on the opposite side of the room from Ramey and further back.

Steven Courtney, vice president of Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, opens the meeting with a quote from Niccolò Machiavelli. "A hypothesis is always more believable than the truth, for it has been tailored to resemble our ideas of truth, whereas the truth is just its own clumsy self." The panel’s mission, Courtney says, is to seek the clumsy truth about the Preble’s mouse.

Panelist John Dumbacher gives an overview of the scientific controversy. He explains that rather than trying to agree on a definition of a subspecies, the panel will compile an array of definitions and assess the same three lines of evidence that Ramey first pitched at the Preble’s mouse — its physical traits, ecology and genetics — to determine where the mouse falls within each definition.

The panelists quickly delve into the mouse’s physical characteristics, and Dumbacher calls Ramey up to the front to talk about his study. Before he begins, Ramey walks over and extends a hand to King. It is the first time the two have met. "I want to offer a personal apology to you for comments that ended up in the press," Ramey says, no doubt referring to his statement to the Rocky Mountain News that "Tim King’s station in life seems to be to do scientific colonoscopies." King nods, but declines to engage Ramey. Then it is Ramey’s turn to take a drubbing. Sacha Vignieri, the lead author on a vigorous rebuttal of Ramey’s work published in Animal Conservation, rings in on the speaker phone from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom and tells the panel that Ramey’s team tested only one of Krutzsch’s original six skull characteristics and none of his five pelt traits.

James Patton, curator at the University of California, Berkeley, Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, echoes her concerns. If someone wants to overturn an existing taxon, then at a bare minimum, "You need to go back and evaluate the original criteria used to name that taxon," Patton tells the panel via speaker phone. "I don’t think that has been done."

Ramey passionately defends his choice of traits. At times he speaks so breathlessly that the court reporter hired to transcribe the meeting asks him to slow down. He tells the panel that his team eliminated characteristics that were subjective, like pelt color, and focused on traits they could measure.

The panel quizzes both Ramey and King about their genetic results. Ramey insists that the DNA put the Preble’s mouse on a tiny, unimportant twig on the mouse family tree. King responds that Ramey’s strict criteria would only find differences between full-blown species, not the more subtle differences between subspecies. "I don’t want to know if it’s a species. I want to know if it’s a subspecies," King says, never raising his voice. At times, the court reporter cranes her head forward to hear King, and more than once, a panelist inches the microphone closer to him so all can hear.

Questions about the mouse’s ecological traits evoke heated debate. Ramey says that not a single published study has found evidence that the mouse possesses unique ecological or adaptive traits, but Dumbacher appears skeptical. "Not finding a difference is different from finding that there is no difference," Dumbacher says.

Vignieri, on the speaker phone, argues that such differences are likely to exist, because the Preble’s subspecies lives only near water. "They’re clearly specialized to riparian habitat. They might not specialize on a particular fungi, but they do specialize." It’s an important point, because if the mouse is limited to a specific habitat, it cannot spread just anywhere and could feel the loss of habitat more acutely than it would if it could simply pick up and move.

Crandall, who sports a gray suit and a Marlboro Man mustache, tells the panel that the only sure way to determine whether the Preble’s mouse is ecologically unique would be to put a Preble’s mouse in a Bear Lodge population. If the Preble’s mouse not only survives, but also plays the same role in the local ecosystem, the two mice are obviously interchangeable. However, says Crandall, it’s an experiment that clearly can’t be done with an endangered species.

The verbal pingpong goes on like this for two days. At times, Ramey seems grossly outnumbered, but he refuses to back down. For every argument made against him, Ramey stands ready with an explanation.

But when panelists dig in to the disputed DNA data, Ramey seems to shut down. When asked technical questions about the discrepancies between his and King’s DNA results, Ramey repeatedly answers, "You’ll have to ask Hsiu-Ping (Liu)" — his colleague, a faculty member at the University of Denver, who did the DNA analysis. He gives panelists Liu’s phone number, but efforts to reach her initially fail.

As the panel winds down, both sides seem ready to declare victory. If a consensus has emerged, it is that good scientists must sometimes agree to disagree. Dumbacher wraps up the discussion by commending both Ramey and King. "I’d hate for my own research to have to undergo this kind of scrutiny," he tells them. Courtney closes the panel by saying, "There is no need to identify a winner here in personal terms. The winner is the scientific process."

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