BOULDER, Colo., Dec. 1 (UPI) -- President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act into law in December of 1973. In the 30 years since, it has remained both one of the most popular and one of the least popular pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress.
A 2002 poll sponsored by the Biodiversity Project of Madison, Wis., showed broad and deep support for the protection of endangered animals by the public at large. About 65 percent asserted humans have a moral responsibility to protect plant and animal life, 78 percent supported a strong ESA, and 63 percent said plant and animal protection should be a priority even in times of economic uncertainty.
As with so many things, however, that support depends on which side of the economic uncertainty one stands. In this month's journal Conservation Biology, a study out of the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources found landowners in the Rocky Mountains who were asked to preserve their land to protect a small rodent, the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, were about as likely to dig up the mouse's habitat to avoid regulation as they were to preserve it.
On the other hand, a majority of landowners -- 56 percent -- would not even allow a biological survey of their property to gather data that could lead to the mouse's protection.
Small wonder. ESA regulations to protect species can be so stringent they effectively drive federal policy on public lands. The protections also can be extended to private lands and as a result "many landowners appeared to defend themselves against having their land-management options restricted by refusing to allow for surveys for the Preble's," the Michigan study said.
The object of all the fuss is 8- to 9-inches long, of which 60 percent is tail. It has coarse fur with a dark back, paler sides tending toward yellowish brown, and a white belly. Its hind feet are long and adapted for jumping.
The Preble's meadow-jumping mouse once was thought to be extinct, but a small population was found on the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver. Since then, naturalists have discovered several other pockets of the animal's habitat. The range of the critter corresponds largely to the Front Range Urban Corridor that runs from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Cheyenne, Wyo.
As it happens, this is one of the hottest regions of real estate development in the West. Predictably, any attempt to extend ESA protection to the humble mouse has been met with fierce resistance from people who stand to lose big if its habitat interferes with development.
Last June, for example, the Mountain States Legal Foundation, of Lakewood, Colo., sued the federal government over the Preble's listing as threatened on behalf of a developer, Robert Hoff, who claimed that protecting the mouse's habitat would devalue his land. Hoff had filed a formal de-listing request with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- which oversees the ESA -- back in July 1999, but the agency never responded to his petition.
"The Endangered Species Act has essentially gone from being about the protection of species to stopping urban sprawl or development, or what have you," Mountain States attorney Christopher Massey told the Denver Post.
The plight of Preble's mouse is only one of more than 1,200 species sagas affected by the ESA. An additional 350 or so more are candidates for listing, according to the FWS, but remain unprotected because of budget constraints.
In the 30 years since the passage of the law, only 26 "true" species and subspecies have been removed from the endangered species list -- and seven of those because they are extinct. Some other large animals -- called charismatic megafauna by conservationists and others -- are likely to be removed soon. Grizzly bears, bald eagles and wolves lead the list.
What might determine the outcome in many if not most of these cases is money -- or the lack thereof. Last April, Gary Frazer, FWS's assistant director for endangered species, testified before Congress that his agency required $153 million to address the backlog of obligations under ESA new-listing and habitat-protection programs.
The agency received $12.3 million for those programs in fiscal year 2004.
Dan Whipple covers the environment for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com