Subspecies Fight for Space on Protected List

Many species listed as endangered are actually subspecies... and critics of the Endagered Species Act say some shouldn't have federal protection. One target: Preble's Meadow Jumping Mouse.

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The Endangered Species Act is the country's most powerful tool for protecting rare plants and animals, but some experts say it should really be called the `Endangered Subspecies Act.' That's because one-fifth of the organisms on the list belong to small populations known as subspecies. Critics say far too many of these subgroups get federal protection. NPR's John Nielsen has more on a proposal to take one of these subspecies off the list, the Preble's meadow jumping mouse.

JOHN NIELSEN reporting:

About a hundred years ago biologists, armed with rat traps and dissection kits, began collecting strange-looking mice near the Rocky Mountains, nine-inch critters with huge hind legs and big flat feet. When startled, these mice would leap way up into the air and bounce away, like so many fur-covered Superballs.

Mr. DAVE HAFNER (New Mexico Museum of Natural History): It's a nice way to move around somewhat erratically to get away from predators.

NIELSEN: Dave Hafner is a mammal expert at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History. He says biologists named these mice Zapus hudsonius, or meadow jumping mice. But the more the biologists saw of these mice, the more they realized that some populations came in different shapes and sizes. To tell them apart, Hafner says, the old school biologists measured all sorts of things.

Mr. HAFNER: Body size, ear length, tail length, various measurements of the skull and those sorts of things.

NIELSEN: Eventually they identified 12 subspecies of jumping mouse. Eleven of these subspecies are common and anonymous today, but the 12th, called the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, has not been nearly so lucky. It makes its home on the eastern edge of the Rockies, and it has held a spot on the endangered species list since 1978. Developers in fast-growing cities like Colorado Springs, Colorado, hate this mouse, mostly because it's hard to get permission to build in its rangelands. Many of these builders do not think the Preble's jumping mouse is really all that different from its far more common cousins. And Rob Roy Ramey, a science adviser to the US Department of the Interior, says these builders may have a point. To understand why, he says, have a bunch of experts look at a hundred different specimens of jumping mice...

Mr. ROB ROY RAMEY (Science Adviser to US Department of the Interior): And mix them up and ask somebody to sort them out. It would come out pretty close to being random.

NIELSEN: Ramey says those old subspecies are based on physical differences that are just too subtle to matter. So for several years he's been using what some say is a more powerful tool for identifying subspecies, genetic analysis. When he compared the DNA taken from the Preble's jumping mouse to the other subspecies, he found what he called minor genetic differences.

Mr. RAMEY: But, you know, they're not reliably distinguishable, and the amount of variation between these putative subspecies is less than that you find within them.

NIELSEN: In other words, in Ramey's view, the Preble's meadow jumping mouse is not a subspecies. The US Fish and Wildlife Service appears to agree wholeheartedly with this assessment. Last winter, before Ramey's study had been peer-reviewed or published, the service proposed to take the Preble's mouse off the list of endangered species. The problem with that plan is that some of Ramey's colleagues say his interpretation of the genetic data is wrong. One is Dave Hafner, the mammal expert at the New Mexico Museum.

Mr. HAFNER: US Fish and Wildlife plucked a very minority opinion and embraced that. I would say the majority opinion clearly is that Preble I is a unique evolutionary unit and that it should be retained. It certainly is endangered.

NIELSEN: Environmentalists fear that there's a trend developing here, one in which the Bush administration uses controversial genetic studies to weaken the Endangered Species Act. Erin Robertson is a biologist with the Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver.

Ms. ERIN ROBERTSON (Center for Native Ecosystems): People will automatically think, `Oh, that has to be new information that we didn't use to have because it's a new technology. Right?' Challenging the genetics is a convenient way for this administration to remove protections for endangered species.

NIELSEN: Ramey says he's just doing good science, but he agrees that there may be more subspecies fights in the near future. Recently, at the request of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, he ran genetic tests on a dozen more protected subspecies found in various corners of the United States. He won't name the animals but says he did find some shaky designations.

Mr. RAMEY: The more I look, the more I found of, really, substandard levels of inference of uniqueness of subspecies in existing populations. I mean, I have found some things that, you know, clearly make the grade, but you know, there are a lot of these listings that are based on taxonomic studies from 50 to a hundred years ago.

NIELSEN: The US Fish and Wildlife Service offered no official comment, but Ramey says it should be clear to everyone involved that there are lots of possibilities here. For example, he says, 60 percent of the mammals now protected by the Endangered Species Act are actually subspecies. A final decision on the taxonomic fate of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse is expected some time this winter. John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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