Are U.S. Landowners Inhospitable to Rare Species to Avoid Regulation?

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
December 29, 2003
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.

Despite these arguments, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced on December 18 that it stands by its original decision and that the species will remain listed.

Cancelled Out

As reported in the December issue of the science journal Conservation Biology, the survey by Brook and colleagues established that the owners of only 25 percent of the land in the study area said that they had improved habitat since becoming aware of the mouse's plight.

These efforts have in effect been cancelled out by owners of 26 percent of the land in the study area who admitted to poorly managing or wrecking habitat to minimize chances of the mouse settling there, and therefore avoid restrictions on land use, according to the study.

Those landowners more economically reliant on agriculture, among other factors, were more likely to have degraded the mouse's habitat. In contrast, those who said they held nature in high esteem and had received information on the mouse from personal contacts and conservation organizations, were most likely to have improved habitat.

Brook also found that a majority of landowners "would decline a biological survey to ascertain the status of the Preble's mouse on their land." This information is essential in setting goals to conserve the species.

This approach to avoiding regulation could be a problem for many species, said Brook, especially those not as well liked as a large mammal or the bald eagle. Mice are often seen as a pest species, she said.

Unintentional Consequence

These findings didn't surprise Richard Knight, wildlife conservation scientist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "Rural people … are bombarded with mixed messages" from the media and from activists, he said. Voices on the far right of the political spectrum are "issuing dire proclamations about the government coming in and taking your land through the Endangered Species Act."

Michael Bean of Washington D.C.-based non-profit conservation group Environmental Defense agreed. This study "confirms an observation we've made, that the Endangered Species Act can have the unintentional consequence of causing landowners to do exactly the opposite of what is required to conserve species," he said.

Another example of where this has happened, Bean said, is the case of the red cockaded woodpecker, Picoides borealis. Landowners in South Carolina had been "routinely advised by consultant foresters," to cut down trees on suitable land not yet harboring the woodpecker, he said—in case land-use regulations might later prevent them from doing so.

The solution to this problem may lie in so-called safe-harbor agreements, said Bean. These agreements encourage landowners to take voluntary steps towards restoring and maintaining the habitat of rare species. In return, the authorities agree not to impose further land-use restrictions. Safe-harbor agreements worked to protect the red cockaded woodpecker, and also the northern Aplomado falcon, Falco femoralis septentrionalis, recently reintroduced into Texas, said Bean.

There are other ways to mitigate the problem, added Brook. Perceived lack of control, distrust of government, and lack of adequate conservation information are all factors which discourage conservation, she said. Encouraging collaboration between the authorities, conservation workers, and landowners has been shown to reduce the fear of regulation, she said.

Economic compensation to those suffering land-use restrictions is another option.

Colorado State University's Knight and his wife, themselves landowners in the Livermore Valley, Colorado, have made efforts to improve the habitat and protect the Preble's mouse on their own land. In this case a community-based collaborative effort with neighboring ranchers and the Nature Conservancy seems to be paying off. "We take great delight in having a [threatened] species, and feel a sense of pride in being stewards," said Knight.

Adding one new twist to the tale, researchers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science also announced on December 18 that the Preble's jumping mouse might not be a distinct subspecies. Their tests showed no distinction between skull measurements and some sections of DNA in the Preble's and one other subspecies of American jumping mouse. Scientists behind the find question whether work to protect the mouse has been based on good science.

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