Mouse that Cost Economy $100 Million May Never Have Existed

Published August 1, 2004

After six years of Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations and restrictions that have cost builders, local governments, and landowners on the western fringe of the Great Plains as much as $100 million by some estimates, new research suggests the allegedly endangered Preble’s mouse never existed. Instead, it seems to be genetically identical to a cousin considered common enough not to need the federal government’s protection.

Technology Shows Identical Match

The tiny Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse was listed under the ESA on May 13, 1998, based on a 1954 study performed by Dr. Philip Krutzch, now emeritus professor at the University of Arizona. Krutzch reached his conclusion based on the examination of three skulls and 11 skins, an acceptable level of scrutiny at the time.

Suspecting the mouse had been erroneously listed, the Colorado Farm Bureau asked Dr. Roy Ramey II, curator of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, to take another look at the mouse using modern DNA analysis. Ramey and his colleagues analyzed mitochondrial DNA, the cell’s genetic code, from several of the 12 species of meadow jumping mice, which range from the Pacific to the Atlantic and as far south as Georgia.

The Ramey team repeated Krutzch’s skeleton measurements, using more specimens from university and museum collections and measuring tools more accurate than had been available at the time of Krutzch’s work. Ramey and his colleagues concluded the Preble’s mouse is a type of Bear Lodge meadow jumping mouse, not a separate subspecies.

Krutzch told the Associated Press in a June 11 story that he endorses the new research and its conclusion. He said, “it’s at the cutting edge of science today and it’s very thorough and comprehensive. I think it clearly defines what is true biologically.”

Scientists Battle Political Activism

For nearly a century, scientists around the world have recognized that biological species must be reproductively isolated and genetically distinctive natural populations. Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, emeritus professor of biology at San Jose State University, explained in McGraw-Hill’s Handbook of Environmental Science, Health & Technology, “This scientific categorization of species classification bears no resemblance to the political use of the word in the Endangered Species Act. Environmental extremists have distorted the word species to the point of uselessness.”

Members of real species cannot successfully interbreed with members of other species; consequently, the gene pool of each species remains relatively stable. The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature regularly publishes the approved procedures for describing and correctly naming animal species.

Edwards also noted in his contribution to the McGraw-Hill textbook, “Political environmentalists have spurned legitimate scientific requirements for the recognition of real species. Instead they consider any loose assortment of similar individuals to be a species, and the identity of so-called species is vague, uncertain, and meaningless.”

ESA Fails Animals, Humans

Seeking to forestall the extinction of various animal and plant species, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. To most people, it seemed like a wonderful, compassionate gesture. To experts such as Edwards who actually read the act, however, it was obvious that a powerful group of dedicated anti-humans had been given almost unlimited power to enforce regulations so loosely written they could mean whatever the administrators wanted them to mean. Individuals accused of harming a species or habitat could be and have been imprisoned, even though “harm” and “species” were not clearly defined in the original bill.

More than 30 years later, as a result of the ESA, billions of dollars have been wasted, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost, and millions of acres of private land have been rendered useless.

Edwards’ article in McGraw-Hill’s Handbook of Environmental Science states, “detailed records reveal 40 percent of species listed on the ESA to be only subspecies or local populations.” Among these, according to Edwards, are Florida panthers, Eastern timber wolves, Columbian whitetail deer, Sonoran pronghorns, Tecopa pupfish, San Francisco garter snakes, Santa Cruz long-toed salamander, Louisiana black bears, Indiana bats, Illinois mud turtles, Arizona jaguars, and the famous northern spotted owl.

In an article published by the Great Falls Tribune on July 30, 1991, prominent naturalist Alston Chase warned, “As a consequence of the ESA this nation may think it’s preserving biological diversity when it is not. And worse, it risks hurting the economy by efforts to save populations that are not unique at all.”

Putting Mice Before People

To protect the Preble’s Meadow Jumping Mouse, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) designated 31,220 acres along Colorado and Wyoming waterways as critical habitat for the rodent. If, as expected, the mouse is now delisted by FWS, developers and local governments will regain considerable autonomy over the land.

All of the land currently listed as critical habitat will not necessarily be developed, but restrictions many people have found expensive and annoying may be loosened or lifted entirely. In one Colorado Springs subdivision, for example, the mouse-related restrictions include a requirement that cats be kept on leashes. In rural areas, protecting the mouse has meant telling ranchers they cannot clear weeds out of their irrigation canals, a rule that reduces the amount of water reaching hay fields in the middle of summer.

One family, Amy and Steve LeSatz, interviewed for the June 11 Associated Press story, have for years wanted to build a riding stable on their land, with the intent of teaching riding and roping. For years their dream has been stalled, because their land was considered special habitat for the Preble mouse.

Rethinking the ESA

It has been 50 years since James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the DNA molecule. It took 25 years before genetic research in medicine and agriculture began to reap rewards from their discovery, and another 15 years for the criminal justice system to benefit. Now some sanity may be brought to the environmental policy arena as well.

Many populations of animals and plants have disappeared from North America, even in areas undisturbed by humans. Degenerate evolution and failure to adapt to environmental changes continue to weed out unsuccessful forms of life through entirely natural processes. It is generally acknowledged that more than 90 percent of animal species on Earth became extinct millennia before humans appeared. And of course, they all became rare before they became extinct. Is there any difference between rare species of animals or plants and endangered species? Should Herculean efforts, observers wonder, be made to save them all, or should events be permitted to take their natural course?

Jim Sims of the Partnership for the West, who coordinated the group’s effort to stop the nonendangered Greater Sage Grouse from being placed on the endangered species list, told U.S. Newswire on May 18, “In the 30 years since it was enacted, ESA has notched a 99 percent failure rate at recovering species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s own data show that only 12 of the law’s roughly 1,300 protected species recovered. That is a success of less than .01 percent.

“Those who want to see federal takeover of state and local conservation efforts don’t really care about the Sage Grouse as a species,” continued Sims. “If they did, they would not be fighting for the ESA listing, which perversely discourages active conservation measures.”

Concluded Sims, “These fringe activists really want to use this law to take away private property, run farmers off their land, stop all natural resource development, raise energy prices, and turn back the clock of progress in the West.”

Dr. Jay Lehr is science director for The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].