At-risk animal programs need federal overhaul

A fter a process that at times took on the tone of the Spanish Inquisition rather than a scientific inquiry, a panel of experts has declared the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse a bona fide subspecies once again — giving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all the political cover it needs to keep “mighty mouse” on the list of protected animals and its regulatory regime in place.

The agency is expected to make the de-listing decision sometime in August. At this point, we are bracing for the worst.

Thus ends the latest chapter in a saga that raises serious questions about the quality of science underpinning the most powerful environmental law of all, the Endangered Species Act. But we doubt this latest twist will end the debate or the controversy, not just over the animal’s true identity but about whether the ESA is working as it should.

Nor should the focus on the animal’s DNA divert attention from an equally important matter: the question of whether these creatures are really as rare as claimed, by those who want to use the species to dictate land-use decisions along Colorado’s Front Range. We have less-than-satisfactory answers on that subject as well.

No matter where one comes down on the DNA debate, which hinges on esoteric issues that only a trained geneticist can grasp, this has been a public policy debacle of the first order. What’s needed now is a congressional inquiry into root causes. As well, more serious thought should be given to how advances in DNA diagnostics, which permit us to detect miniscule differences between otherwise identical animals, will alter the ESA.

USFW will argue that the latest findings prove that “the process” works well. But that’s spin. The case shows the scientific basis for listing decisions is sometimes flimsy, unreliable and politicized — and that the only time agency bureaucrats get motivated to apply real scientific rigor is when their regulatory power and authority are threatened, as they were in this case.

When confronted with compelling evidence that the mouse’s listing was an error, presented by biologist Rob Roy Ramey the agency went shopping for a researcher who would challenge Ramey’s findings. The job went to Tim King, a government biologist known to parse the genetic code so precisely that he can categorize Atlantic salmon that spawn in different streams as distinct subspecies.

A panel of purportedly independent researchers, selected by a USFWS contractor, last week sided with King, after an unprecedented shootout between scientists in Fort Collins, Colo. One observer said the event took on the appearance of an inquisition, with panelists grilling Ramey while going easy on King.

It’s interesting that all this scientific rigor was applied by USFW only after questions about the creature’s identity were raised and a de-listing was proposed. Had half of this science been a done up front, before the listing was made, a lot of time, trouble and money might have been saved.

Ramey, who stands by his conclusions, says the exercise seemed designed to send independent scientists the message that agency officials will punish those who challenge listing decisions or the priorities of the ESA. He also worries about the implications of parsing animal species into ever smaller sub-groups.

“The ESA was intended to protect major species that we had brought to the edge of extinction,” Ramey said. “But that congressional intent has clearly morphed into something very different. Subspecies and local population segments of otherwise common plants and animals are regularly listed as if they were full species,” he said. This puts us on a “slippery slope,” according to Ramey, and opens the listing process to manipulation and abuse.

“We can continue down this road and spend hundreds of billions of dollars on ineffective programs to ‘save’ presumably endangered local populations,” he said, “while losing the very species that the ESA was intended to protect.”