for National Geographic News
Federal protection of endangered or threatened plants and animals is supposed to help their conservation, not hurt it. However, new research into one threatened animal suggests that the approach can sometimes backfire.
Researchers following the fate of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, found in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, have revealed that owners of more than a quarter of the land studied admitted to actively degrading habitat following the species' listing as threatened in 1998.
Critics of the animal's protected status, including those representing farmers, ranchers, and developers, among others, have presented evidence that the mouse does not qualify as a threatened species.
These landowners feared regulation of agriculture, development, and leisure activities on their land, all of which could have been curtailed as potentially damaging to the mouse's habitat. "The Endangered Species Act is one of the major tools in the U.S. to conserve species," said Amara Brook, psychologist and lead author behind the study. "But in some cases it may not be enough."
Reliant on Private Land
More than 2,000 species were added to the World Conservation Union's (IUCN) annual Red List of most at-risk species last month, taking the world's total of at-risk animals and plants to more than 12,000. A total of 1,263 United States species are currently listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Listing a species is supposed to increase awareness of its plight, encourage protection of its habitats, and promote restoration of degraded environments. Anecdotal evidence suggests that things aren't always this simple, however, said Brook. "I'd heard rumors that in some cases landowners had attempted to remove a species before regulation could take effect."
Though private landowners manage the habitats of many rare species in the U.S., data on responses to conservation legislation is difficult to find, said Brook. It is thought that over 90 percent of federally listed rare species live partly on non-federal land, and up to 50 percent are totally reliant on it.
To fill that data hole, Brook and her colleagues surveyed 379 private landowners to find out their reaction to the 1998 listing of the Preble's mouse as threatened.
The Preble's meadow jumping mouse, Zapus hudsonius preblei, lives along streamside meadows from the foothills of southeastern Wyoming down to Colorado Springs, Colorado. The majority of its habitat is privately owned.
Farmer representatives such as the Wyoming Farm Bureau and other critics of the decision to protect the mouse have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (F.W.S.), arguing among other reasons that:
limited information on the mouse does not yet warrant its listing;
it is difficult to identify the mouse as a separate subspecies;
the geographical range of the mouse is in question; and
that population declines have not been documented.
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