The Preble's meadow jumping mouse, once seen as a costly impediment to development, is now viewed by the government as a critter that never really existed — and is no longer in need of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The Interior Department said Friday that new DNA research shows the 9-inch mouse, which can launch itself a foot and a half into the air and switch direction in mid-flight, is probably identical to another variety of mouse common enough not to need protection.
"That action is based on new research that indicated the Preble's meadow jumping mouse should not be classified as a separate mouse," Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson said Friday, calling it "an example of the use of best available science that was peer-reviewed."
Manson and other Interior officials cited a peer-reviewed but unpublished study by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science suggesting the Preble's mouse is genetically identical to the Bear Lodge meadow jumping mouse. The study was paid for by Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service, the Energy Department, the state of Wyoming and the Denver museum.
Interior officials acknowledged that 14 peer reviewers had split 8-6 to narrowly support the study's conclusions.
Based on the study, the Fish and Wildlife Service will propose removing the Preble's mouse from the government's endangered species list about a year from now. It will remain protected until then. The Preble's mouse has been considered a distinct subspecies based on a 1954 study that looked at the skulls of three mice and the skins of 11 others.
Mouse blocked development
Nearly 31,000 acres have been designated critical mouse habitat for the Preble's mouse along streams in Colorado and Wyoming, including large parts of Colorado's Front Range, where sprawl is booming amid the foothills and the prairie. The mouse also has blocked construction of reservoirs despite a continued drought there.
Environmentalist groups called Interior's decision a political one.
"This proposal is a devastating blow to open space across the Front Range, to good science and to the public interest," said Jeremy Nichols, conservation director for the Laramie, Wyo.-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.
The decision came in response to twin petitions filed in December 2003 by Wyoming and the Denver-based Coloradans for Water Conservation and Development, an advocacy group for farmers, businesses and home builders. Kent Holsinger, an attorney for the Denver group, said the meadow jumping mice are abundant enough to survive without federal protection.
Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., called the action "good news both for private property owners in Wyoming and for those who enjoy the use of our public lands."
Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said the decision points out the need to revamp the Endangered Species Act. "Although the act has noble goals, listing errors harm not only the credibility of the act, but also harm people such as farmers and ranchers whose lives are affected by a faulty species listing," he said.
Builders, landowners and local governments have spent as much as $100 million by some estimates protecting the Preble's meadow jumping mouse since it was added to the federal list in 1998 as a species whose survival was considered "threatened."