Building a Better Mousetrap

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

Ramey is both a champion and a harsh critic of the Endangered Species Act and has voiced his opinions in testimony before Congress, as well as at lectures and panel debates. He supports the spirit of the law but argues that much of the science that's driven it has been sloppy.

"The truth is, there are a lot of bogus old taxonomies that date to fifty, a hundred, 200 years ago that are still on the books because they haven't been challenged. And they haven't been challenged because until the creation of the Endangered Species Act, they haven't had any legal significance," says Ramey. "Now, with the ESA, those biological designations matter, and they matter in a huge way when it comes to policy and society and the allocation of conservation resources. But a lot of these designations are highly suspect. The Preble's is just one example."

In early 2002, Ramey was approached by Cheri Jones, then curator of mammals at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, about conducting a genetic study of the Preble's mouse. "I started reading all the available literature and found that Krutzsch's had only measured three skulls," he says. "One would think that someone would have taken issue with this earlier, but they didn't."

Back to nature: Rob Ramey on a California Condor 
study in northern California in the mid-'80s. The 
shotgun was used to defend Condor nests from 
marauding ravens.
Back to nature: Rob Ramey on a California Condor study in northern California in the mid-'80s. The shotgun was used to defend Condor nests from marauding ravens.

So Ramey put together a research proposal to test one simple hypothesis: Is the Preble's jumping mouse a genetically distinct sub-species? He presented his proposal to Fish and Wildlife's Preble's Mouse Recovery Team in the summer of 2002. The reception was chilly.

"I could tell that my even proposing to challenge the prevailing wisdom wasn't particularly appreciated by most of the team," he remembers. "And then one member, Karen Rose, from the state of Wyoming, suddenly declared, 'This is excellent!' If looks could kill, she would have been dead on the spot. I laughed for hours afterward."

Wyoming officials, who'd sought for years to remove the Preble's mouse from federal protection, were tantalized by the possibility suggested in Ramey's proposal and offered to fund his study with a $60,000 grant. Fish and Wildlife kicked in another $20,000, and the project was green-lighted by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

The first step was comparing the DNA of the Preble's jumping mouse with that of similar sub-species. This testing was done by the museum's population geneticist, Hsui-Ping Liu, who ran comparative DNA sequencing tests of Preble's DNA and that of the Bear Lodge meadow jumping mouse, a sub-species common in South Dakota and Montana.

The DNA matched.

"Modern DNA testing is pretty strong evidence, but I knew how controversial this listing was, and I wanted more proof," says Ramey. "So I asked Lance to measure skulls. After all, that's what the original designation was based on."

When Carpenter called Ramey and told him that the skull measurements confirmed the DNA findings, Ramey knew he'd been handed a live grenade. He could have fallen on it, buried his findings and subverted pure science to the greater good of vital habitat conservation. He knew that revealing the truth was likely to lead to the Preble's jumping mouse's being removed from the list of protected species, which would in turn open up massive tracts of pristine land to developers.

"I think the argument that we should have buried our findings is a reasonable one, given what's at stake," he says. "Certainly, my life would have been a lot easier if the findings had gone the other way. And I often wish they had. But the truth is, they didn't, and I believe that intellectual honesty will achieve more in the long term."

The results of his team's research were first made public in a petition, filed in December 2003 by the Office of the Governor of Wyoming and Coloradoans for Water Conservation and Development, to remove the Preble's jumping mouse from the endangered-species list. Developers heralded Ramey's conclusion as tidings of joy.

Last March, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the delisting petition had enough merit to warrant a formal review, the first step in the process to remove a species from endangered protection.

Ramey now thinks it was a mistake to release his findings in a politically charged petition to delist the mouse before his research had been vetted and published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. "If I had to do this all over again, I wouldn't have entered into any kind of cooperative agreement or contact with a government agency where I had to produce results by a certain date," he says. "I would have gotten the results, then gotten them published on my own timetable. But that's not the way it worked this time."

By releasing his findings to the State of Wyoming, he'd pulled the trigger and fired the dart. Now the environmentalists turned and charged. They attacked Ramey's ethics and character, suggesting that he was in the pocket of pro-development forces and that his research was skewed to support a personal crusade to revamp the Endangered Species Act.

Earthjustice and the Center for Native Ecosystems, both Denver-based organizations, accused Ramey of "doing everything possible to hijack the science," branding him "the leader of a high-profile campaign to remove protection for the Preble's mouse." But so far, none of Ramey's critics have presented any scientific evidence to refute his team's findings.

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