Building a Better Mousetrap

Biologist Rob Ramey isn't afraid of taking risks -- but taking on environmentalists may be his riskiest move.

"Soils derived from granite are low in selenium to begin with," says Ramey. "The question is whether acid rain can reduce levels below the threshold for lamb survival. It's a tantalizing hypothesis, but ask me what the answer is next year."

After the exhausting ascent, Carpenter and Ramey spend the final three hours before the sun goes down hunting small herds of sheep and categorizing them as rams, ewes and lambs. They are well above tree line, exposed to slicing winds. The temperature is falling with the sun to near zero. There's is no way the scientists can make it down before dark. The descent will be perilous, but the danger is now inevitable. The point of no return has passed.

Ramey couldn't be happier.

A tray of Preble's specimens at the Denver Museum 
of Nature & Science.
James Glader
A tray of Preble's specimens at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
Ramey, his wife and a guide in Zimbabwe in 1990.
Ramey, his wife and a guide in Zimbabwe in 1990.

"This is so cool!" he shouts, bounding across a rock field to set up the heavy spotting scope he lugged up the mountain. "Can you see them? Check it out!" He points to a group of thirty bighorns grazing about 300 yards away. "Look at them just hanging out up here, doing their thing! They're so awesome!"

Just beyond the sheep is a lonely metal post marking the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. Ramey and Carpenter are forbidden to conduct any research there; without explanation, their research privileges in the park were revoked this fall. "I don't think they wanted real answers," says Ramey.

"We could move that marker and they'd never know," says Carpenter. "They never come up here."

Off in the distance, Ramey waves. He's spotted a second group of bighorns. Carpenter hustles toward him, and the two scan the group for a few minutes, then compare their counts. The last traces of sunlight are fading from light blue to purple, but Ramey isn't finished. He insists on running to the edge of a cliff a half-mile away to peer over and make sure they haven't missed a single bighorn. He drops his pack and takes off at a dead run over snow and rock, staying in radio contact with his assistant while Carpenter skis below tree line and fires up a stove to melt water and heat soup before the trip down.

Carpenter guides Ramey in with headlamp signals and directions over the radio. Once in the trees, Ramey pulls out a satellite phone and leaves a message for his wife that he'll be coming home from the mountains very late, again.

Then it's time to ski down in the dark, with headlamps illuminating a narrow path ten feet ahead. Ramey leads, whooping and laughing. Navigating the trees is like skiing a random slalom course, and he crashes often.

When they reach the base of the mountain, Ramey and Carpenter high-five with ski poles, then sit down for a tasty meal of hot chocolate, ramen and a Power Bar before banging out the six grueling miles back to the trailhead. By the time they reach their cars, they've been out in the wilds for a solid fourteen hours.

"I hurt," says Ramey. "I need a soak in the tub and a big glass of tequila."

He was soaking in that same tub in December 2003 when Carpenter called with news that would transform Ramey, a man most at home with wildlife and the laws of nature, into a leading character in the bizarre and thoroughly human theater of conservation politics.

"Lance called me from the airport," he remembers, "and I was in the bathtub, and I closed my eyes and said, ŒOkay, let me have it.'"

Carpenter was returning from a trip where he'd compared Preble's jumping mouse skulls taken from the archives of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science with the skulls of other, more common and definitely not endangered sub-species of meadow jumping mice stored in museums and universities in Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico.

Carpenter's news confirmed what Ramey had feared: The skulls matched. This was strong evidence that the Preble's jumping mouse was not a genetically distinct sub-species, as it had been classified since 1954. That initial determination stemmed from the work of a wildlife biologist at the University of Arizona named Philip Krutzsch, who'd based his conclusion on the comparative measurements of only eleven skins and three skulls.

Outside the limited realm of mouse biology, the question of whether the Preble's jumping mouse was truly a distinct sub-species was of little importance until 1998, when environmental organizations successfully petitioned the federal government to list the mouse as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, the protected status of the mouse has been a powerful weapon for environmental activists battling urban sprawl in Colorado and Wyoming. The mouse's habitat falls mainly in fragile riparian areas along the east side of the Rockies, valuable territory that environmentalists are struggling to preserve -- and that developers, miners and ranchers are eager to exploit.

Since the Preble's jumping mouse was classified as a threatened species, its protected status has impeded -- and in some cases, blocked -- hundreds of millions of dollars in proposed developments on streamside land up and down the Front Range. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that protecting Preble's habitat has cost real-estate developers in Colorado and Wyoming between $8 million and $18 million every year in consulting fees alone.

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