Peak & Prairie
April / May 1998
Controversy Over An Endangered Mouse?
by Federico Cheever, Professor, University of Denver College of Law
The Preble's meadow jumping mouse (PMJM) is beginning to make news along Colorado's front range. This otherwise unobjectionable grassland critter is in for a round of vilification. Why? Because development along the front range has destroyed so much of its habitat and so fragmented what is left that the mouse runs a serious risk of disappearing forever. On March 25, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to make a final determination on a petition to list the PMJM filed by Colorado's Biodiversity Legal Foundation.
Colorado politicians are already preparing for the storm of controversy that always seems to accompany high profile endangered species listings. Ben Campbell declares that listing the PMJM will cause "irreparable damage to the front range of Colorado." Campbell and politicians like him are taking their cue from their colleagues in other states who have made a good thing out of endangered critter bashing.
The listing of the PMJM doesn't need to be an economic hardship for the Front Range. In fact, it can assist in providing for our long term economic well-being.
The cities along the Front Range are not dependent on resource extraction for their economic well being. Few of us cut down trees for a living, work in mines or graze cattle. We do lots of different things. We could do them in many places around the country, but we have decided to do them in Colorado because we like the life we can have here. We like the mountains. We like the birds and wildlife.
There is one thing all animals need to survive, water. Accessible water is rare in dry Colorado. Animals find it in riparian zones. That is where the Preble's meadow jumping mouse can be found. The precarious status of the PMJM is a warning sign that the "riparian habitat," on which many of the Front Range's creatures depend, is in trouble.
Taking care of the mouse will force us to take care of its habitat. Taking care of its habitat will help us to protect one of the things that makes living on the front range special. That is in our economic interest.
Will the Endangered Species Act stop all development? No. Its purpose is to resolve conflicts between development and species protection, through the "consultation process" when the action is authorized, funded or carried out by a federal agency or through the habitat conservation planning process, if no federal agency is involved. Sometimes, striking a reasonable balance between species preservation and resource-based industries requires hard choices and big changes. That need not be the case on Colorado's Front Range.
Most of us already support open space preservation for reasons that have nothing to do with the Preble's meadow jumping mouse. What the mouse will require to survive and recover to the point where it no longer requires Endangered Species Act protection is a coordinated open space preservation program that targets remaining Front Range riparian habitat. There is a good chance the Front Range counties' sophisticated land use planning can put a program together without breaking a sweat. But they won't get the chance, if the mouse becomes the center of a political circus.
So why all the wailing about listing? It is quite possible that some of the people you will hear from in the weeks to come are more interested in looking good to interest groups, who decided long ago that they could not live with the Endangered Species Act, than they are in solving problems here on the Front Range. A battle over mouse preservation on the front range will be time-consuming, expensive and a pain for all of us who live here, but it will look great to some folks in Washington, D.C. and California.