Building a Better Mousetrap
When you shoot an elephant in the ass, bad things can happen.
Rob Ramey learned this in Zimbabwe in 1990. Now the chair of zoology and curator of vertebrate zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Ramey is a gutsy, boots-on-the-ground researcher who mocks "armchair biologists." He has scaled 200-foot giant sequoia trees using ice-climbing tools to study California Condor nests, and he once organized a cavalry of severely hung-over Mongolian horsemen to chase Argali sheep into capture nets. He was in Zimbabwe with his wife and colleague, Laura Brown, to study the way in which elephant family groups are able to communicate over long distances using infrasound -- low bass rumblings similar to hip-hop thumping from a lowrider.
"We were trying to correlate the sounds with behaviors, basically trying to create the Rosetta Stone of elephant communication," he says.
Ramey's job was to collect genetic data from different elephants to establish their family relationships. He did this by modifying a drug-delivery dart so that instead of tranquilizing an elephant, it would punch out a piece of tissue that he could then analyze on a DNA sequencer.
His native guides "pretty much thought I was nuts," he recalls.
The herds that Ramey and his wife were studying had been hunted by poachers and culled by government rangers. The animals knew the meaning of a man with a rifle. "Elephants do remember," says Ramey. "Fortunately, they have terrible eyesight, so as long as you stay crouched down, they're not sure what you are. But you have to stay downwind, because if they smell you, they'll come and squash you into a pile of guava pulp."
Ramey carried a tobacco pouch full of ash so he could frequently shake a pinch out and test the prevailing breeze. The first time he fired the modified dart gun, he was thirty meters from a family of elephants on the open plains. He aimed for a huge bull's midsection. He fired and missed -- sort of. The dart stuck the bull right in its elephantine derriere. The bull turned, saw the man with a rifle and charged.
"I ran like hell and cut a sharp 90-degree turn to lose my scent trail," Ramey says. "It was good day to die, but I'm glad I didn't."
Last year, Ramey got a repeat lesson on the consequences of jabbing an elephant in a sensitive spot -- but in a more figurative sense.
This time, the offended parties were the environmental community across the West and professional environmentalists' long and tightly held belief that a tiny rodent known as the Preble's jumping mouse was a genetically distinct sub-species that deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act.
And this time, the dart Ramey fired was the cold, hard, pointed truth.
Although Robert Roy Ramey II was raised in the urban San Francisco Bay area, his family was outdoorsy, and he developed a passion for wilderness and wild things early in life. His father, a World War II combat veteran, owned a construction business; his mother was an accountant. But the family owned a ranch in northern California, and Ramey remembers one summer night in 1966, when he was nine years old, sitting with his mother in the family's old Ford station wagon, parked near the edge of a pond with the headlights off.
"We turned on the headlights to see what was drinking, and right there was a mountain lion," he says. "It looked up, and we saw its eye-shine, and it stared at us for a second and then ghosted away into the night. I was blown away. I was just, ŒWow.' That moment has always stayed with me."
When he was in junior high school, Ramey had a science teacher, Mr. Bergman, who was "the cool dude on campus," he remembers. "He drove a Volvo sports car, and he was just a wonderful individual and a progressive thinker." Mr. Bergman turned Ramey on to the burgeoning environmentalist movement. The year was 1970, "a time of hope that we could actually change the world. The first Earth Day was that year, and that was a turning point for me, a waking up, a realization."
A young Ramey read Silent Spring soon after and vowed to dedicate his professional life to studying and protecting endangered and threatened wildlife. He's kept that promise and has had a damn good time in the process.
Ramey has a spacious but windowless office inside the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, a place he abandons in favor of the outdoors whenever possible. The wildlife biologist has a climber's physique, compact and muscular, and a jovial moustache; he radiates positive vibes. There are smile lines around his eyes, which glimmer with the unhinged energy of a veteran adventurer who's good at getting himself out of tough spots -- and is maybe a little too good at getting himself into them, as well.
Bronzed from a recent field study on the Baja Peninsula, Ramey free-associates in spiraling conversational threads, pausing frequently and staring into space for a second, like he's waiting for his mouth to catch up with his brain.
He got his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, a free-spirited campus he refers to as Uncle Charley's Summer Camp. "It took me a long time to graduate, because after my first year at UCSC, I would take off every spring semester and go be a climbing bum in Yosemite," Ramey says. His experience scaling Yosemite's big walls paid off in the mid-'80s, though, when he was hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to act as a human lifeboat for endangered peregrine falcons that were nesting on the sheer face of El Capitan.
"Basically, I'd speed-climb up to a nest wearing a backpack containing an incubator and two young peregrine chicks that had been raised in captivity," he explains. "Once I ascended to the nest, I'd take out the eggs, whose shells had been weakened by exposure to DDT, and I'd replace the eggs with the chicks." Then he'd put the eggs in the incubator and take them down so that they could hatch in the controlled environment of a laboratory, giving the chicks inside the best chance of survival.
After he finally graduated from UCSC, Ramey enrolled in graduate school at Yale University, where he obtained a master's degree in wildlife ecology. He met Laura at Yale, where she was studying conservation biology. They now have two children, ages eight and ten, who often accompany them in the field, whether it's in Costa Rica -- where Ramey cut net lines through the jungle with a machete, his youngest kid strapped to his back -- or the Baja, where he paid his children a dollar for every bighorn sheep they spotted on the island where he was conducting a population survey.
"My wife and I are a team, and our kids are now part of the team," says Ramey. "What could be better than to have your spouse be your partner and do wildlife-conservation research in remote locations? And then to bring up your kids doing the same?"
Ramey went on to Cornell University, where he earned a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology in 1991. Two years later, a post-doctorate fellowship brought him to Colorado. Today the family lives in Nederland, where Ramey volunteers for the local fire department and gives odd jobs to a self-proclaimed "mountain man" who lives in a squatter's cabin in the hills above the town.
"It takes a village to support a mountain man," Ramey says. "But hey, I admire the guy's spirit."
Ramey applied for his current job in 2001, after he saw it advertised in Science. One of his heroes is Roy Chapman Andrews, the real-life character who provided the inspiration for Indiana Jones. A curator at the American Museum of Natural History in the 1920s, Andrews led expeditions through Africa and Asia, collecting fossilized dinosaur eggs and fending off attacks by bandits.
If Andrews could make such a cool job out of a curator gig, Ramey decided, so could he.
"I don't think most of the people at the museum really know what I do when I'm not in the museum -- how hard it is, but how much fun," he says. "They can have my office, as far as I'm concerned. Give me a satellite phone, a laptop and a generator, and I'm set."
His home in Nederland is a short drive from the workplace Ramey greatly prefers: the Indian Peaks Wilderness, which he explores year-round as part of his research into possible causes of the ongoing die-off of bighorn sheep in the Rocky Mountain region.
On a cold Thursday in December, Ramey and his research assistant, Lance Carpenter, are on the job an hour after dawn, cross-country skiing six miles up Peaceful Valley, then undertaking a punishing backcountry ascent of St. Vrain Mountain, climbing to just below 12,000 feet by late afternoon. Last summer, the two biologists hauled 45-pound mineral blocks rich in the trace element selenium to bighorn habitats in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness and Rocky Mountain National Park, all places where they're testing the hypothesis that the decline in the bighorn population is caused, at least in part, by a deficiency of selenium in the sheep's diet. The mineral blocks introduced an outside source of selenium.
"The sheep lick them," says Carpenter. "It's sort of like giving them a daily multi-vitamin."
Recent population surveys of bighorn sheep have shown that while birth rates are consistent with historic levels, the survival rate of lambs is down. One possible explanation for this -- the one Ramey and Carpenter have keyed in on -- is white-muscle disease, a degeneration of skeletal and cardiac muscles in lambs caused by too little selenium in the mountain vegetation that the sheep graze on for most of their active hours. Carpenter and Ramey are now counting sheep in the areas where they placed the mineral blocks. If their count shows that more lambs survive the winter than in previous years, it will support the selenium-deficiency theory. The most likely cause of decreased selenium in vegetation is increased air pollution: Air pollution causes acid rain, and acid rain burns away selenium in plants.
"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.
"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.
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."
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.
"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.
"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."
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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