Not many people who live along the Front Range of the Rockies have seen the Preble's meadow jumping mouse. But this critter is already starting to change the way they live.
And if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the mouse as an endangered species, which it is expected to do in mid-May, the changes could become profound. For the mouse's only habitat happens to be smack in the middle of one of the country's fastest-growing regions.
But environmentalists worry that this growth is destroying habitat that provides for more species than just the mouse. Fail to save the habitat for the mouse, they contend, and other species will also decline in number.
Americans show no signs of slowing their westward migration. So environmental laws increasingly have come into play in Western suburbs and cities -not just rural areas.
Last year, Colorado's 2% rise in population put it among the five fastestgrowing states in the country. That growth is concentrated along the Front Range of the Rockies - where four in five Coloradans already live. The Front Range extends from Cheyenne in southeastern Wyoming south through Denver to Colorado Springs, Colo.
Three of the Colorado counties where Preble's mice have been found rank in the top 10 fastest-growing in the country.
Over the past five years, Colorado has produced 400,000 new jobs. That increase has helped lure people to the state.
Could the Preble's mouse slow the growth?
To some, a slowdown might not seem so bad. As in many Western states, anti-growth sentiment runs high. As many as 80% of people in a recent poll by The Denver Post supported listing the mouse as endangered.
"Over the last 10 years, the growth has been so great that people are starting to say that we're starting to pay a price for it," said Jasper Carlton, director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, whose lawsuit prompted the Fish and Wildlife Service to propose listing the mouse as endangered.
But others value that growth, and argue the cost of protecting the mouse is too high.
Listing the "killer jumping mouse," as Sen. Ben Nighthorse- Campbell, R-Colo., recently called the Preble's mouse, "will be destructive to our infrastructure, economic development and jobs in Colorado."
By law, the mouse must be treated as endangered as soon as the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to list it. The proposal, which came in March '97, has already begun to stall some projects -and raise costs for others.
For example, Colorado Springs Utilities had to delay a $35 million water pipeline project to survey for mice. None was found, so the project went ahead. And, in Jefferson County, a gravel-mining company had to set aside 400 acres for mouse habitat out of the 1,000 acres it had planned to mine.
"It's not the mouse people should be looking at, but the habitat," said Sharon Rose, a Fish and Wildlife Service official in Colorado. "Many different species are dependent on that habitat, and as we see less and less of it, those species will also be coming up for review."
The Preble's mouse lives largely in stream beds and marshy areas. What poses a threat to that habitat? It could be just about anything: Housing, water wells, mining, industry, commercial development or farming and ranching.
Even recreational trails - and your pet cat, if it's outside - could pose a threat. And that worries people.
"Our feeling is that this is just the tip of the iceberg," said Tom Hoyt, chief executive of McStain Enterprises, a Boulder, Colo.- based home builder. "As we get more population growth in the West and more urban sprawl, the potential for conflict is very high."
Such warnings don't faze habitat protectors. Carlton describes worries that mouse protection will stymie development as "fearmongering."
Here's why: The greatest populations of mice have been found on federal property, such as the former Rocky Flats nuclear site and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, he notes. Much of the rest of their habitat can't be developed due to flood plain and other zoning regulations.
Setting aside the open space that is needed to protect the mouse could even raise home values, Carlton argues.
But that is little comfort to developers and others who are worried that measures to protect the mouse will encroach on property rights.
If development is destroying the mouse's habitat, it's hard to see how the habitat can be protected without stopping development.
"If it is listed, it will stop development in those areas," said Abby Lopez Muniz, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Association of Home Builders.
The state of Colorado, local governments and the private sector are banding together to come up with a "habitat conservation plan." The idea is to do enough to conserve the habitat so that the Fish and Wildlife Service won't need to list the mouse as endangered.
"Wildlife conservation does not have to be ridden with conflict," said Doug Robotham, assistant director of the state's Department of Natural Resources. "But business as usual with the Endangered Species Act means a lot of conflict."
But even the conflict-free way isn't easy. Just ask state Rep. Jeanne Adkins, who is sponsoring a bill to fund habitat preservation. "We don't know what the rules of the game are," said Adkins, a Republican from one of the counties affected by the mouse. "The target moves all the time, so we never know what we have to do" to satisfy environmental regulators.
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