Building a Better Mousetrap

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

Ramey offered the committee a series of specific suggestions, including requiring that candidate species -- those proposed for protection under the ESA -- "be tested for genetic uniqueness before listing. In some cases, that will not mean gathering new data, but only analyzing existing data in order to test the hypothesis of uniqueness."

Months later, Ramey still isn't satisfied with the way ESA works. "I don't like the exclusion of humans from wildlife habitats unless it is absolutely necessary, and I don't automatically buy that human disturbance of critical habitat is causing a species to be threatened or endangered," he says. "I think that people who don't themselves have a lot of experience in the wild are more likely to buy into these theories of habitat disturbance without clear evidence. Armchair biologists are more likely to assume that humans in the environment will have deleterious effects. They err on the side of protection, but what I think they don't realize is they're excluding future environmentalists from the natural environment. They're restricting the ability of humans to discover themselves in wilderness, and ultimately, I think this is more dangerous to conservation on the whole."

His biggest concern with the ESA, though, is that "it's driven by lawsuits, not science," he says. "The priority of the ESA, according to the letter and spirit of the law, is supposed to go to protecting single-genome, clearly unique species such as the California Condor. That should be our number-one priority. Instead, the process and the system of the ESA is bogged down with lawsuits over species which are definitely not full, distinct species, and may not even be legitimate sub-species.

"Think about biodiversity as a tree that's in trouble," he continues. "Do we want to try and save the little twigs at the end of the big branches, or do we want to try and save the big branches? Which is going to save the tree in the long term, looking out a hundred, 500 years? If we keep running around filing lawsuits, trying to save all these little twigs, we're wasting conservation resources at the expense of the big branches. We just have to understand that we may have to lose some of the little twigs out there. That means that some groups will lose their ESA cash cows, but it's for the long-term good."

Leaving his office, Ramey leads the way into the museum's natural-history archives. He pulls opens a tray of dead mice labeled "Preble's jumping mouse." Then a tray of "Bear Mountain meadow jumping mouse."

"You see any difference?" he asks.

He shuts the drawers, then goes to a cabinet and brings out a stuffed passenger pigeon. "Extinct," he says. "Gone forever. Never coming back." He goes to another cabinet, unlocks it, extracts an ivory-billed woodpecker. "Also extinct."

He points from the passenger pigeon to the ivory-billed woodpecker. Unlike the mice, the two birds look nothing alike.

"These are deep branches on the tree," he says. "These are things that are really and truly different, and they are gone forever from this world. This is where our priorities need to be. This is what really matters."

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