Building a Better Mousetrap

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

"They don't have any data to back them up, so their strategy has been to discredit and to obfuscate to the maximum extent possible," says Ramey. "You think I'm wrong? Prove it. You think my science is bad? Go ahead and try to prove me wrong. I'll take anybody to the mat on this."

On an October panel debating the proposed Preble's delisting, Jacob Smith, founder and director of the Center for Native Ecosystems, repeatedly stressed the fact that Wyoming had funded Ramey's study. "When you consider the validity, it's important to recognize who paid for Mr. Ramey's findings," Smith said.

Listening to this, Ramey angrily drummed the table in front of him with a pen, looking as if he wished the tabletop were Smith's head.

James Glader
Rob Ramey
James Glader
Rob Ramey

"Mr. Ramey has participated in politicizing what is supposed to be an objective scientific process by releasing his findings in...a premature and public manner," Smith continued.

Ramey rolled his eyes and looked toward the heavens, as though God might deliver him from the inanity.

"Mr. Ramey has -- " Smith began again, before he was interrupted by a voice in the audience belonging to a representative of the governor of Wyoming's office.

"Excuse me, excuse me! I believe you mean Doctor Ramey."

At that, Smith turned and asked Ramey, "Oh, would you prefer I called you 'Doctor'?"

"Sure, why not?" Ramey replied. "I worked hard for it."

Ramey's findings on the Preble's jumping mouse have yet to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. "We're tight-lipped on when and where that's going to happen," he says. But last year, before the State of Colorado joined Wyoming in arguing in favor of delisting the mouse, the state's Department of Natural Resources solicited comment, and thus far, Ramey's findings have stood up to the scrutiny of scientists across the country.

"The conclusions are right on," says Keith Crandall, a biology professor at Brigham Young University. "It's clear that the [Preble's jumping mouse] is not a valid taxon and that the animals on the Front Range of Colorado are genetically represented in other areas."

Krutzsch himself, now eighty and retired in Tucson, submitted a review of Ramey's research in which he stated that the findings of the team "clearly invalidate" the original classification.

"The tools of today are indeed cutting-edge," says Krutzsch. "Ramey should be satisfied with the in-depth and reproducible analysis he presents. I can think of other listed endangered species that could have benefited from a prior, detailed, scientific appraisal, and I thank him for his eloquent study."

But even that ringing endorsement hasn't quieted the smack talk in what Ramey says has devolved into "a sandbox issue."

"I don't think anyone is saying that Rob Ramey rigged the results, exactly," says Erin Robertson, staff biologist for the Center for Native Ecosystems. "But I do think that Rob Ramey has made it clear that he has an agenda, that is he is working to remove the Preble's jumping mouse, and that he believes there are major flaws in the Endangered Species Act. I think the fact that Wyoming funded the study doesn't automatically make it suspect, but the fact that Ramey is on this traveling speaking circuit against the Endangered Species Act and is using the Preble's as a main example of the ESA's flaws makes his results seem biased."

Tacked to a wall in Ramey's office is a copy of an illustration depicting Galileo being interrogated by Vatican inquisitors, demanding that he renounce his findings that the universe does not revolve around Earth. Ramey has drawn his own cartoon word bubbles on the drawing so that the chief inquisitor now says: "The mouse is a unique sub-species! The mouse is threatened with extinction! How dare you question our authority!" To which Galileo responds, "It may not be politically correct, but it is factually correct that the mouse is neither!"

"I've tried to keep my sense of humor through all this," says Ramey. "But the truth is, throughout history, when you have a dogma, and scientists challenge that dogma, no matter how good their evidence, there are those who will try to impeach their credibility. I just think that good science, like good citizenship, depends upon asking questions and deriving truth through critical thinking, and if we're blindly going along with the flow of something that's dogmatic and faith-based, and we accept something as true only because it's repeated over and over again, then we're not being good scientists or good citizens."

Last April, Ramey went to Washington, D.C., to testify before a congressional committee on proposed amendments to the Endangered Species Act. "When the ESA was drafted thirty years ago, many of the scientific tools and concepts that are now basic to the field of conservation biology did not exist," Ramey said. "We need to update the ESA to meet today's scientific standards and to make use of today's technologies.... Public support for the ESA and the long-term effectiveness of species recovery under the ESA can be strengthened if we raise the bar on scientific standards used in support of decisions. More rigorous scientific standards must be applied at each level of the endangered-species recovery process, including listings, critical habitat designations, recovery plans, conservation plans and delistings."

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