Feb 152005
Authors: James Baetke

Land restrictions, economic loss and environmental pressure have caused controversy across the Front Range because of a 7-inch mouse on the endangered species list.

The Preble's meadow jumping mouse was listed as an endangered species in 1998. With that, land restrictions have stumped the development in the mouse's habitat and have caused a firestorm of controversy along the Front Range urban corridor.

The corridor extends across Colorado from Castle Rock along I-25 into Larimer County and Wyoming.

An unpublished study by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science states the Preble's mouse may not even exist as a unique species, thus possibly giving reason for the mouse to be taken off the endangered species list.

Private landowners, corporations, government entitities and other non-federal landowners who want to conduct activities on the mouse's habitat must first obtain an incidental permit. Conservation efforts must also be exhibited to keep the Preble's mouse from harm.

Jeani Frickey, spokeswomen for the Coloradans for Water Conservation and Development, spoke on behalf of the organization that initiated the delisting process of the Preble's mouse.

"We filed the petition because our organization felt the mouse was erroneously listed based on faulty science," Frickey said.

The conservation and development organization filed the petition along with the state of Wyoming in December 2003. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepted the petition and the process to formally delist the mouse was announced Jan. 28.

Some are weary of the decision, saying political pressure is the delisting culprit, and they also cite "sloppy" science. Some ask that the decision to have the mouse delisted be halted until the study looking into the mouse's genetics is concluded. Fourteen peer reviews have been published; some approved the study and others rejected it.

"They are removing protection based on sloppy science and political pressure," said Erin Robertson, a staff biologist for the Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver.

Frickey disagreed.

"I would call the listing of the mouse a political agenda," she said.

Robertson said it is likely the delisting of the mouse will officially occur, which is slated for a final decision in early 2006. She said the Department of the Interior is acting too quickly to delist the Preble's mouse and should wait on three critical questions that are still left unanswered. Robertson lists the three questions as:

1. Other genetic markers need to be tested to ensure the mouse is not its own subspecies and not any part of the Bear Lodge meadow jumping mouse?

2. If it is determined the mouse is the same animal as the Bear Lodge meadow jumping mouse, does the mouse still have merit to be protected?

3. Is the Preble's mouse a subdivision of a species that is treated as its own species for purposes of protection?

"I think it will be highly unlikely that (Secretary of the Interior) Gayle Norton will go back on her word to delist," Robertson said.

Frickey said she is "confident science is on our side" and that if the delisting is made official next year, conservation efforts will not disappear nor will developers, ranchers or homebuilders start utilizing the once-protected land.

"If the mouse is delisted, environmental conservation will not halt," Frickey said.

Robertson is still concerned with the loss of open space and streams in Colorado, including the Front Range urban corridor.

"There are ways we can develop in a smart way," Robertson said.

Whether politics have been playing a role in the relationship between development, economics and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 is up for debate.

It cannot be ignored, however, that support to rid the Preble's mouse from the list has been evident by politicians speaking out against the mouse.

Gov. Bill Owens, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., Secretary of the Interior Gayle Norton and U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., have all publicly expressed their opinion that the mouse should be ousted from the endangered species list.

"This is great news for Coloradoans, as many of our communities have been negatively affected by the establishment of Preble's critical habitat throughout Colorado," Allard said in a press release from the Coloradans for Water Conservation and Development.

Ranchers, even in Larimer County, and agricultural businesses have been hugely affected by the habitat restrictions and are now eager to resume normal business practices.

"This is a monumental step to delist the Preble's meadow jumping mouse," said Jerry Sonnenberg, president of the water conservation and development organization and a rancher from Sterling. "Our peer-reviewed science in the petition demonstrated that there were so many mice in so many locations in Colorado and Wyoming that is was absurd to provide the mouse with a protected status."

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