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The Last Symposium

Why science alone will not settle the West’s endangered species dilemmas

One of 12 subspecies of meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius), the Preble’s mouse was first described in Colorado by naturalist Edward A. Preble in 1899. Nearly a century later, in May 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the mouse as threatened and designated 31,222 acres of critical habitat.

Enter [Dr. Rob Roy] Ramey [II] who, in 2002, got to digging through the scientific literature after a colleague suggested they collaborate on a Preble’s mouse project. Ramey found that the 1954 monograph that classified the Preble’s mouse as a distinct subspecies, had — like many such distinctions of its day — been based almost entirely on the critter’s physical characteristics. Philip Krutzsch, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, had made the designation based on coat color and skull measurements – and he’d done so using just a handful of mice.

"He’d only looked at four adults and seven juvenile specimens. Juveniles have tons of variation in their coat color," says Ramey, who at the time worked at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

With so few specimens, it was possible that the differences Krutzsch had used to split the Preble’s mouse into a new subspecies were just an artifact of his small sample size. "I said, ‘Aha! This is the question to ask: Is this mouse really distinct?’ " says Ramey.

What happened next threw Ramey smack into the middle of one of the Endangered Species Act’s ugliest quagmires. On the surface, it looks like a simple dispute between "lumpers" — biologists who pack varying plants or animals into a single species or subspecies — and "splitters" — those who see such variations as reason to divide wildlife into different classifications. But the debate runs much deeper than science, touching on issues that involve philosophy as much as science. One central question: As long as the government possesses only limited funds to float an endangered species ark, how should it decide which passengers to allow onboard?

The panel meets in early July, in a small conference room at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. A courtroom-like aura hangs in the room. Given their distinct morphology (bald head), adaptations (identical Macintosh laptops) and behavior (a tendency to ask probing questions) the panelists themselves might qualify as a distinct subspecies under some definitions.

-From Is it (or isn’t it) just another mouse?
By Christie Aschwanden
High Country News
August 7, 2006

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