DNA study bad news for mouse, endangered species list
Published: Tuesday, June 6th, 2006
We’ve seen a lot of nuttiness routinely perpetrated in the name of the Endangered Species Act as a way of protesting the U.S. Senate’s refusal to act on ESA reform this year. One of the most bizarre ESA sagas involves the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse. The story, much like Alice’s Wonderland, just gets curiouser and curiouser. Just a couple of weeks ago, The Associated Press was reporting — rather triumphantly, we thought — that the weight of scientific evidence was tilting decisively in favor of continued federal protection for the on-again, off-again species whose true identity has become a test of the soundness of Endangered Species Act science. Conflicting DNA studies by two reputable scientists have led to a tug-of-war over the mouse (and, by extension, over the credibility of the ESA listing process), with opponents of the listing hanging on the creature’s tail, while backers hold the whiskers. The May 18 wire story focused on a study by federal biologist Dr. Tim King that purports to show that the Prebles is, in fact, a unique subspecies. King’s finding seems to refute an earlier DNA analysis done by Dr. Rob Roy Ramey, then at Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science, which found that Preble’s was indistinct from the Bear Lodge mouse, which are plentiful. Ramey became a lightning rod for controversy not only due to the bombshell nature of his study, which brought tremendous pressure on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the creature, but due to his testimony before Congress, in which he called for strengthening the science behind ESA. The controversy led to Ramey’s being eased out by the Denver museum, with the encouragement of the regional office of USFWS, according to one Denver newspaper columnist. And the agency went out and commissioned a second study, this one by a federal biologist, which seems to refute Ramey’s findings — leading to suspicions that the agency was attempting to discredit Ramey as a way of saving face. This latter study, combined with the cursory taxonomic research that served as the basis for the creature’s listing, tilted the weight of the scientific evidence in favor of continued federal protection, the AP reported — a conclusion that struck us as simplistic and premature, since there were at that time only two DNA studies in play. But now there are three studies. And guess what? The third study, commissioned by the state of Wyoming and conducted by Genoma, LLC, reportedly confirms Ramey’s finding that the mouse is not a subspecies. “The additional scientific study once again confirms that there is no such beast as a Preble’s meadow jumping mouse,” Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal said. “What has been called a Preble’s meadow jumping mouse is genetically indistinguishable from other jumping mice currently thriving in no less than 14 states.” Freudenthal ordered the additional study submitted to USFWS, in support of the state’s petition to delist the mouse. So, as of last week, the DNA studies were running 2 to 1 against the mouse being a separate subspecies — yet we didn’t see the AP trumpeting this as conclusive evidence that the mouse should be delisted. USFWS, which hopes to make a decision about delisting by August, has contracted with the Portland-based Sustainable Ecosystems Institute to weigh the scientific evidence and, hopefully, bring some clarity to the situation in the next 60 days.
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