Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Mickey Mouse: A brief history of an endangered species fiasco

In what will surely go down as one of biggest absurdities in the history of the Endangered Species Act -- and that's saying something -- the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday removed Preble’s meadow jumping mice in Wyoming from the endangered species list, while the creature’s identical cousins, just across the state line in Colorado, remain "threatened." Read about the culmination of this regulatory fiasco here.

A book could be (and should be) written about the long, strange saga of the creature intermittently known as the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, which I followed closely during my years at The Colorado Springs Gazette. But I can’t possibly recount every plot point and bureaucratic intrigue here. Trying to do so would make my head spin right off my shoulders.

Here it is in bullet points, however.

  • Jumping mouse listed as threatened subspecies in 1998, based on a cursory examination of three dusty old museum specimens. Listing motivated, as usual, by desire of greens and no-growthers to stymie development along the Rocky Mountain Front Range. The creature, which hibernates for 8 months of the year, is gleefully dubbed "Mighty Mouse" for its ability to stop building projects in their tracks.
  • Critical habitat designation follows, endangering property rights and imposing enormous mitigation costs over large swaths of two states.
  • After questions are raised about the listing decision, genetic testing debunks creature’s bona fides as a unique subspecies, leading to calls for de-listing and regulatory relief.
  • All hell breaks loose. Greens go ape. Embarrassed federal bureaucrats circle the wagons and plot their response.
  • An eco-Inquisition is launched against Dr. Rob Ramey, the biologist who courted heresy by daring to 1.) challenge the creature’s status as a subspecies, and 2.) raise questions before a congressional committee about the scientific integrity of the Endangered Species Act. Controversy and outside pressure cost Ramey his prestigious position at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, as well as a later consulting contract with the Department in Interior. [Vince Carroll of the Rocky Mountain News laid out some of the ugly particulars here. And we editorialized on the subject when I was with The Colorado Springs Gazette.]
  • Feds in regional office go looking for a biologist who will debunk Ramey, and they find one – surprise! – who works for the federal government. His study – voila! – reaffirms mouse’s status as unique subspecies.

    De-listing process grinds to a halt, while an “independent” review panel -- selected by a contractor under hire to the USFWS -- pretends to objectively weigh the conflicting evidence. The dispute, roughly speaking, is between “lumpers” and “splitters,” which is more fully explained here. Ramey – who isn’t anti-ESA but believes the law is being misused – likened this experience to becoming the target of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Agency officials side against Ramey and with the splitters, to no one's surprise, since slicing and dicing the genetic code so precisely, in search of otherwise insignificant and imperceptible differences, creates a potentially infinite number of listable subspecies. And that means a potentially infinite new expansion of agency budgets and regulatory clout.

There's most of it, in a nutshell. But there’s one final act in the charade.

In response to intense political pressure from the state of Wyoming (Colorado, by contrast, offered little organized resistance to the original listing or to the regulatory regime that accompanied it), USFW responded to the de-listing petition with a weird split decision. Preble’s mice in the state of Colorado were to remain "threatened," while identical mice in Wyoming would lose their protected status. Although the creature’s habitat stretches across both states, they are less endangered in relatively slow-growing Wyoming, explained the agency, than in faster-growing Colorado.

In effect, the agency created two new subspecies of subspecies, separated by a state line, the Colorado Preble's meadow jumping mouse and the Wyoming Preble's meadow jumping mouse -- though, in all likelihood, both are actually bear lodge jumping mice. And that bizarre, patently political decision became a matter of federal policy yesterday.

If you're confused and dismayed at this point, join millions of Coloradans.

And then people wonder why ESA is the most hated law in America -- and why calls for its reform or elimination are so persistent here in the West, where its absurdities and burdens are most in evidence. And the rub is, it’s highly questionable whether the mouse is in danger of disappearing in either state. It’s listing is open to challenge not just on the genetics – which is the focus of much of what I've written today -- but on similar uncertainties surrounding the numbers. Some argue that the mice are much more prevalent than originally believed. They're now known to inhabit at least 132 sites, while they were found at just under 30 sites at the time of listing.

There is more to this travesty than regulatory malpractice, scientific shenanigans and bureaucratic butt-covering, however. A good man's name and reputation have been tarnished by greens and federal bureaucrats bent on winning this battle at all costs. Rob Ramey, who I got to know a bit while following the story, is one the best friends that truly endangered species have in this country. But because he has the courage to point out flaws in the Holy Grail of environmental laws, and because his work resulted in embarrassment for Preble's advocates and a de-listing petition, he became yet another target of fanatical eco-McCarthyists. Bjorn Lomborn experienced this for calling himself a “skeptical environmentalist." Many other honorable and highly-qualified scientists have come under similar attack for declining to take the sensationalist tack on climate change. Ramey has been the victim of a similar smear.

The eco-McCarthyists aren't content to settle scientific or policy disputes on the merits. They seek to destroy, discredit, intimidate and silence anyone who stands in their way. And unless this dangerous drive to impose scientific "consensus" through intimidation and coercion is confronted and rejected, the integrity of regulatory science -- and science itself -- will be endangered.

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