updated 10/8/2009 11:06:08 AM ET 2009-10-08T15:06:08

A tiny mouse that got entangled in political wrangling over endangered species may have more space set aside in Colorado, where its survival is given special consideration.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wednesday proposed doubling the amount of critical habitat for the Preble's meadow jumping mouse to about 39,000 acres from the current 18,462 acres.

The proposal would add 184 miles of rivers and streams to land considered essential to survival of the mouse, on the endangered species list since 1998. The designation of critical habitat provides an extra layer of protection when federal agencies are considering projects.

Driving the proposed expansion was the finding that a 2003 decision was improperly influenced by a former high-ranking Interior Department official. An Interior inspector general's report found that Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service, applied political pressure in several decisions on endangered species.

Steve Guertin, regional Fish and Wildlife director in Denver, said the agency reviewed the 2003 decision because of concerns that some areas were improperly excluded as critical habitat.

The agency will make its final proposal after taking public comments until Dec. 7.

"We may find the areas aren't essential or may or may not be appropriate for exclusion," Guertin said.

The agency will analyze the proposal's economic impacts.

Areas excluded in 2003 and added to the new proposal are in Boulder, El Paso and Douglas counties. Other counties with land designated for the mouse are Jefferson, Larimer, Teller and Broomfield.

All the existing and proposed critical habitat are along streams and rivers and adjacent grassland along the east side of the Rockies, Colorado's most populous and fastest-growing area.

That growth is one of the reasons the Fish and Wildlife Service maintained federal protections for the mouse in Colorado after its listing as a threatened species was challenged.

Some landowners and communities opposed declaring the mouse as threatened, saying it could stop development. Federal officials said critical habitat designation doesn't affect private landowners who don't need federal permits, but they still can't do something that harms a listed species.

The only other place the jumping mouse is found is in southeast Wyoming. Fish and Wildlife took the mouse off the list in that state after determining new populations were in areas unlikely to be developed.

"The areas are largely ranching and farming communities," Guertin said. "The farmers and ranchers up there have done a very good job preserving the areas."

Environmental groups have sued to overturn removing the mouse's protections in Wyoming.

"It was inappropriate for them to have delisted Wyoming, a segment of the range essential to the species' survival," said Josh Pollock of Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems, one of the groups suing.

But Pollock said he was encouraged by Fish and Wildlife's proposal to expand the mouse's critical habitat in Colorado.

"It really bases the boundaries first and foremost on what are the places essential to the survival and recovery of the species," Pollock said.

The real test, however, will be the final proposal, Pollock added.

The tail on the Preble's meadow jumping mouse takes up about 60 percent of its body length — 8 to 10 inches. It has large hind feet and legs, enabling it to jump to escape predators.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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