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Monday, May 3, 2004



A Denver zoologist whose work has called into question the validity of a threatened species listing for the Preble's meadow jumping mouse testified before Congress last Wednesday. But his revelations concerning the creature's true genetic blueprint it's indistinguishable from mice found in abundance elsewhere, raising potentially scandalous questions about the process leading to a federal listing wasn't all that was on Rob Roy Ramey's mind.

The top zoologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science offered a startlingly candid critique of the sometimes slipshod science underlying the nation's most powerful environmental law, the Endangered Species Act a point underscored last week when the professor whose work led to the animal's listing admitted he had erred in declaring it a distinct sub-species, based on examinations of only three mice.

Wednesday's hearing before the House Resource Committee concerned H.R. 2933, a bill sponsored by California Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat, that's aimed at reforming the way the federal government designates "critical habitats" under ESA. The policy of setting aside potentially huge swaths of land for the almost exclusive use of federally protected species, whether or not they actually can be found there, is undoubtedly the most contentious and questionable part of the law. It imposes potentially huge costs on communities and private property owners, often based on the flimsiest scientific justifications and economic impact studies.

That's where Ramey's testimony comes in. "While the ESA is in need of updating to keep pace with the tools of science, I see a more fundamental problem with the application of the ESA, one that has become a major source of controversy and litigation," he said. "That is the wide latitude for interpretation of what constitutes best available science in making ESA decisions. There can be a substantial disconnect between accepted scientific standards and how science is used in decisions regarding endangered species management."

Ramey especially questioned the adequacy of peer reviews conducted in connection with the ESA. "It has been my experience with the USFWS peer review process that a document may carry the claim of being peer reviewed but the peer reviews were less than ideal," he said.

And he said he thought better science would help reduce the increasingly costly and counterproductive barrage of litigation that accompanies virtually every listing or habitat designation."

Ramey then posed a question of particular importance: What recourse do citizens have when they've been the victims of federal regulators acting on bad science? He pointed out that his discovery of the mouse's true taxonomy occurred six years after it was federally listed, and one year after critical habitat was designated. The reforms currently being proposed are valuable, he said, but do not address situations in which the facts become known only after costs and consequences have been imposed. These are questions, Ramey said, that "should be asked before listing petitions are considered."

Such critiques were reinforced last week by an admission of error by the University of Arizona professor chiefly responsible for the animal's listing. Dr. Philip Krutzsch acknowledged his mistakes, as well as the validity of Ramey's findings, in an e-mail included as part of Wednesday's hearing. That prompted calls for a quick de-listing of the mouse by Sen. Wayne Allard.

It will likely be months before U.S. Fish and Wildlife reaches a decision about de-listing the mouse. But if the care and attention to detail currently being put into the de-listing process had been taken all along, this outrageous misuse of federal power could have been avoided.

Colorado Springs Gazette

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