Next month, when thousands of Preble's meadow jumping mice awaken from their annual seven-month hibernation they may only have one more year to live.
That is, if recent attempts to remove the controversial and only federally listed endangered species living along the Front Range prove successful.
The Preble's mouse -- listed as endangered since May of 1998 --has long been the scourge of developers and business interests along the steadily sprawling Front Range urban corridor as projects have been interrupted by the threat of unbalancing the mouse's habitat.
The mouse was first found in Colorado by Edward A. Preble 99 years before it was listed as an endangered species. And this is no ordinary mouse. The relatively small rodent has, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's official description, an extremely long tail --which accounts for over 60 percent of its length of 8 to 10 inches -- and large hind feet and legs designed to help it jump across small creeks and through the wetlands, dense grasses and shrubs that constitute its habitat. Rob Roy Ramey, a genetic biologist who conducted a recent study of the mouse for Denver's Museum of Nature and Science, acknowledges that even if the Preble's mouse is eventually delisted, it will never be an average, common mouse.
"It definitely wins on coolness," Ramey said. "They're hibernating for something like seven months out of the year and have developed the ability to jump very long distances.
"This is not the mouse that comes into your kitchen and eats your granola."
The mouse's habitat extends like liquid veins through an otherwise arid landscape and is also home to trees such as coyote and peachleaf willows; alders; gambel oaks; ponderosa pines; plains cottonwoods; and numerous other native and migratory wildlife species.
Large amounts of this riparian habitat are found in El Paso County, especially in the Tri-Lakes area north of Colorado Springs and in the areas around Monument Creek, Smith Creek and Cottonwood Creek. In the six years since the listing of the Preble's mouse, these areas, as well as others extending north toward Denver, have also seen some of the most significant increases in development activity in all of Colorado.
For the past several years this mouse has been the source of continual lawsuits and petitions, many of which have been brought against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by local business and development interests. Colorado Springs real-estate broker Bob Hoff and the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, an organization that currently has a case pending to delist the mouse, have argued for years that the mouse is not really a threatened species and that its listing was based on "junk science" collected in the 1950s.
In fact, Hoff asserts, the protection of the Preble's mouse is actually a hoax designed to provide jobs for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"It's a fraud promulgated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service who continues to add new species to the Endangered Species Act," Hoff said. And why? Career enhancement and jobs, I can find no other reason for it."
Never existed at all
Yet despite years of controversy and development, the disputed science has withstood every attempt to remove the protections on Preble's wetland habitat. Until now.
On March 26, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the newest delisting petitions, filed in December by the State of Wyoming and a new group called Coloradans for Water Conservation and Development, is substantial enough to merit a yearlong review.
This delisting petition is unique. It does not claim, as previous petitions have, that the Preble's mouse is not threatened. Instead, it claims that the Preble's meadow jumping mouse never really existed at all.
The claim is based almost entirely on a $60,000 genetic study conducted by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and funded by the State of Wyoming with a small portion of the funding coming from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This study, according to museum scientist Ramey, proves that the Preble's mouse is actually not a unique creature but is genetically identical to another mouse, the Bear Lodge meadow jumping mouse, which the petitioners claim is widespread throughout Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota.
If this new genetic science stands up to a review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Preble's mouse would likely be "synonymized" with the Bear Lodge mouse -- meaning that the Preble's mouse would literally cease to exist. Disappearing with it would be all federal protections on its wetland habitat from Cheyenne, Wyo., to Colorado Springs.
The bigger perspective
Ramey, who has been working with endangered species for 23 years, realizes the significance of the controversy he has stepped into, but believes that limited resources must be directed toward species that merit protection.
"I try to see this in the bigger perspective," Dr. Ramey said of the Preble's mouse. "So much money is being wasted while biodiversity is going down the drain."
For this, Ramey -- as do Hoff and other pro-development interests -- lays much of the blame on the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. He is exceedingly critical of their biologists, saying they were mistaken in determining the original scientific validity of the Preble's listing, and claiming that they are opinionated, overworked and not in the mainstream of scientific investigation.
"They don't have an understanding of how science differs from opinion," he said. "There is a lot of opinion out there masquerading as science."
For environmental groups concerned with protecting the Preble's mouse and its diverse habitat, however, the determination is not that straightforward.
The Center for Native Ecosystems, a Denver-based environmental group presently challenging Mountain States Legal Foundation in the courts, doesn't question the validity of Ramey's genetic results. Instead, they question his interpretation of what it means for the future of the mouse and the grassy, streamside wetlands on which it lives.
Erin Robertson, the staff biologist at CNE, doesn't buy Ramey's assertion that the Bear Lodge meadow jumping mouse is not itself a threatened subspecies. She also believes that Ramey has made some claims about the distribution of the Bear Lodge mouse that he can't back-up.
"It seems like there was an agenda beyond just the scientific results," she said.
Ramey is aware that his genetic study has added a new layer of controversy to the 6-year-old fight over the Preble's mouse, but he stands by his assertion that protecting the mouse is not an adequate solution to the larger conservation issues facing the state.
"People want them to be unique," Ramey said, "but what's needed is critical thinking about what the priorities are for the conservation goal.
"What's the winning solution? It's not here."
Opening the doors
While Fish and Wildlife considers the ramifications of Ramey's genetic study, environmental groups are concerned over a larger issue: If the Preble's mouse is removed from the Endangered Species Act, Colorado will also lose the only Habitat Conservation Plans ever created in the state, which they warn would open the doors for the development of the currently protected diverse streamside lands.
Habitat Conservation Plans are land use regulations enforced by the Fish and Wildlife Service, designed to protect the habitat of a listed species, even on private land. HCP's can range from small plans on private property to large, regional plans managed by county governments.
In Colorado, protection of the Preble's mouse habitat has forced development projects along the Front Range to assess, monitor, maintain and preserve the environment by implementing conservation plans.
But the forced protection for the mouse has also resulted in sometimes-hostile responses from developers and others who are disgusted by projects being held up because of a mouse.
For example, at a February meeting of the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners to discuss the development of a county conservation plan for the mouse, Ernie Biggs, a private land owner from Monument, brought with him little chocolate mice for Preble's opponents to "smash."
Biggs, and many other landowners, claim that the protection of Preble's habitat on private lands is tantamount to federal theft of private property.
Not all those who work with Habitat Conservation Plans see them that way though. Mike Bonar, the Natural Resources Manager for El Paso County Environmental Services, argues that Habitat Conservation Plans have a greater significance than just preserving the mouse.
"It will benefit more than just the mouse," Bonar said. "It would positively affect water quality and water quantity.
"Development is a big part of the county," he continued. "We would never tell anybody, 'you can't use this piece of land.' There may just be some restrictions on how it's done."
In El Paso County, there have always been very few restrictions on development of private land, and Bonar admits that protecting mouse habitat has caused a lot of animosity. However, he views the conservation plan process as a give-and-take between the environment and development.
"It's a federal law, and we're trying to help people through it," Bonar said. "We have to balance between development and the Endangered Species Act."
However, as Biggs said at the county meeting in February, "If I own two acres, and that land is in mouse habitat, and I go to [Fish and Wildlife] or to the people here, they will say the same thing: 'You can't use that land.'"
Realtor Hoff, who was also at the county commissioners meeting, put it a different way.
"I sound like a terrible right-winger," Hoff said. "But I belong to the Sierra Club ... I spend more time in the wilderness than a lot of those people, and I am interested in the environment. I'm just not interested in stealing people's land."
No more protections
With Fish and Wildlife's recent decision to review the listing of the Preble's mouse -- currently the only endangered species living along the Front Range -- the debate between private land control and habitat conservation has experienced a new revival.
If the mouse were delisted, all of the Habitat Conservation Plans developed over the last six years will, like the mouse, also disappear, and the only conservation mechanisms protecting diverse wetland habitats on the Front Range could give way to unrestricted development.
Kathleen Linder, the Habitat Conservation Planning Coordinator for the Colorado Field Office of the Fish and Wildlife Service, believes that there may be some way to maintain the federal protections, but she admits that restrictions would be eased, if not erased entirely.
"This is kind of a unique situation that hasn't really happened before," she said.
Other people involved in the process, however, don't believe that any protections can remain if the Preble's mouse is delisted. Gary Skiba of the Colorado Department of Wildlife can't imagine that federal protection of habitat could continue on land that no longer harbors an endangered species.
Skiba says that if the Preble's mouse were delisted, the responsibility for its protection would fall to the state. "There really isn't any protection at the state level," he said.
Bonar, of El Paso County Environmental Services, agrees.
"If the mouse were delisted, the plan would probably just go away," he said.
Bonar, like many conservation groups, also believes that removing the mouse from the list of endangered species could have a destructive effect on Front Range stream habitats.
"It would be like any place else," Bonar said, "available for development."
The future development of shrinking stream habitats on the arid Front Range is exactly why many environmental groups are so concerned about the possible Preble's delisting.
Jacob Smith, the executive director of the Center for Native Ecosystems, warns that removing the Preble's mouse from the Endangered Species Act would result in unrecoverable destruction of the most biologically diverse habitats on the Front Range.
"We're talking about housing developments and gravel mines here," Smith said. "[The Front Range] is getting blitzed. It's just getting completely devastated. ... Protecting the Preble's mouse is a core part of protecting what's left of the Front Range."
Other conservation groups also argue that increased development along the Front Range will affect more than just the mouse.
The Colorado Wildlife Federation estimates that 90 percent of all wildlife species rely on stream habitats for survival.
With the future of water resources and wetland habitat in question all over the West, environmental groups claim that the conservation of these limited resources is critically important for the survival of a wide variety of wildlife species.
Robertson, of the Center for Native Ecosystems, calls the stream corridors of the Front Range "a network of blood vessels in the landscape," and "magnets for biodiversity."
She also argues that increased development and asphalt use can cause higher quantities of water to run into streams resulting in erosion, the narrowing of stream beds, a reduction in the size and diversity of wetlands, and the deterioration of water quality in areas where humans, as well as wildlife, need clean, reliable water sources.
"If the Preble's is determined not to be distinct, are we OK with trashing the stream corridors that other wildlife depends on?" Robertson asked.
Smith believes that the future conservation of riparian biodiversity on the Front Range hangs in the balance of the Fish and Wildlife's decision on the Preble's mouse.
"If any of these delisting petitions come through, we will lose a lot of riparian habitat," Smith warned. "If the Preble's mouse is delisted, we will lose one of the most important tools for protecting habitat."
Major source of anger
For six years, the financial costs behind the protection of Preble's habitat have been a major source of anger for private landowners and developers. Hoff, for example, cites the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's economic analysis that protecting "critical habitat" in El Paso County will cost $103 million over the next 10 years.
This economic analysis of critical habitat, however, is not as significant as it sounds -- at least with regard to the Preble's mouse. The designation of "critical habitat" only affects federal projects within a limited area. And, more importantly, not a single acre of land in El Paso County has been designated as "critical habitat."
The county's development of a regional Habitat Conservation Plan provided an exemption from any such designation -- meaning that the numbers cited by Hoff represent only hypothetical costs.
Which is not to say that the protection of the Preble's mouse does not have real costs. It does. El Paso County has already spent at least $550,000 developing a Habitat Conservation Plan, and Colorado Springs Utilities has contributed an additional $150,000.
Tom Taylor, the developer of Briargate, estimates that the Habitat Conservation Plan for the Briargate project cost an extra $3 million dollars and took more than three years to develop. Briargate was also subject to restrictions on land use -- a planned 127-acre public recreation area was reduced to 27 acres, and there is a 182 acre "mouse preserve," which Taylor is considering donating to The Trust for Public Lands, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting land for public use.
Bob Hoff believes that by protecting the Preble's mouse, the county "is pissing its money away on a damn common mouse," and claims that the mouse has also added time and money to state highway projects.
The Colorado Department of Transportation, however, doesn't see it that way.
Dick Annand, the Regional Environmental Manager for CDOT, says the mouse hasn't cost Colorado any extra time or money. State projects, he maintains, always assess a wide variety of environmental impacts, making the mouse just one part of protecting the environment.
"Sometimes the public thinks it is going to cost more, but it's just a normal part of any project ... Just as normal as asphalt or bridges or whatever," Annand said.
CDOT resident engineer James Flohr, who has worked on roadway projects in El Paso County agrees. "It's just one more element of things we look at with a bunch of other concurrent issues."
Because the transportation department is required to assess a wide variety of environmental impacts -- from air and water quality to noise and vibration -- protecting the Preble's mouse has not been seen as an extra cost, extra delay or extra headache.
"In a lot of ways, it didn't slow us down at all," Flohr said.
This discrepancy between conservation perspectives reveals an important piece of the Preble's controversy: Development activities on the Front Range have never before had to accommodate habitat conservation and endangered species issues. As the Front Range's first and only endangered species, conservation efforts on behalf of the Preble's mouse are also the first and only to have a direct effect on urban and suburban growth.
The next Preble's mouse
In the meantime, conservation groups aren't taking attempts to synonymize the Preble's mouse with the Bear Lodge mouse lightly. Instead, they are focusing their efforts to protecting the Bear Lodge mouse as well.
Robertson of the Center for Native Ecosystems cites a 1998 report by the World Conservation Union that lists the Bear Lodge mouse as vulnerable. In addition, the states of Wyoming and Montana have both placed the Bear Lodge mouse on their list of imperiled species.
Smith also says that the Bear Lodge Mouse may need protection.
"Even if the Bear Lodge mouse and the Preble's mouse are synonymized we may still have a species that is range-wide threatened," he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledges that the shift from Preble's to Bear Lodge will have to be considered as a part of their review.
Jeff Kessler, the conservation director of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance in Laramie, considers the gathering significance of the Bear Lodge mouse and argues that the State of Wyoming has grossly overstated Bear Lodge's prevalence in its attempt to delist Preble's.
"They keep saying it is [a] widely distributed [species]," Kessler said, "but we don't know what the hell they are talking about."
Jeremy Nichols, the endangered species coordinator for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, has long expressed his concern for the Bear Lodge mouse.
"This mouse is probably more restricted in its range than Preble's," he said.
Nichols predicts that the Bear Lodge mouse could become "the next Preble's mouse," and that the fight for stream and wetland habitats throughout the West might eventually fall on the shoulders of the Bear Lodge mouse, which he thinks may warrant a listing of its own.
"It will be interesting to see what happens with this," Nichols said. "Wyoming may have shot itself in the foot."
Gary Beauvais, director of the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, also warns that the Bear Lodge mouse is potentially threatened.
"[The Bear Lodge mice] are a train wreck waiting to happen," he said.
In South Dakota, Doug Backlund, a biologist and database manager for the state's Natural Heritage Program is also concerned about the potential over a future fight over the Bear Lodge mouse.
"The riparian habitat in the Black Hills has been deteriorating worse than any other," Backlund said. "I've been trying to get the forest service to put [the Bear Lodge] on their list of sensitive species for years, but so far they haven't done anything about it."
Riding off into the sunset
For the time being, the fate of the Preble's mouse and its wetland habitat along the Front Range of Colorado hinges on the Fish and Wildlife Service's coming review of Ramey's genetic study and the newest petitions to delist the mouse.
Regardless of the decision, however, legal battles may continue to shape the process.
"No matter what the decision is, list or delist," predicted the county's Bonar, "somebody's going to sue [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife."
Indeed, as Monument landowner Ernie Biggs warned at the conclusion of February's county commissioners hearing, "If I find out this is based on bad science, I'm going after somebody."
And Bob Hoff, who has sued Fish and Wildlife over the Preble's mouse before, remains confident that he can secure a court-ordered delisting. In fact, Hoff asserts that his efforts will ultimately save taxpayers a half-billion dollars.
"They oughtta put a statue of me on the Capitol lawn with a tarp over it so the birds don't shit on me because I will have saved the taxpayers of Colorado and Wyoming $25 million dollars a year for each of the next 20 years," Hoff said. Then, he says, "I can retire and ride off into the sunset."
"I told them five years ago that I'd get the mouse delisted before they got their Habitat Conservation Plan," Hoff continued. "And I'd say I'm coming in ahead in a photo finish."
Smith of the Center for Native Ecosystems doesn't see that happening.
"We would fight that. We would fight it all the way," said Smith.
For now, Pete Plage of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Colorado says the Preble's mouse and its habitat will remain under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. "We can't alter the conservation plan based on speculation. ... It's listed until it's not listed," he said.