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County wants home rule over Preble’s mouse habitat

The Preble’s meadow jumping mouse is a mighty creature that has foiled a few developments and gnawed at the pockets of many.The mouse slowed the expansion of Woodmen Road for years. Classic Homes shelled out $2 million to construct a bridge for the mouse over a drainage area in Colorado Springs, and the Parker Water and Sanitation District spent $1 million to construct “mouse tunnels” near the new Reuter Hess Reservoir.In a September interview in the Rocky Mountain News, Sen. Marilyn Musgrave said, “Private property owners who encounter endangered species like the Preble’s mouse on their land have to endure the enormous burden the federal government imposes in protecting them.”The imposition has fueled debate among conservationists, government officials and land owners.According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the eight-inch long mouse, with a tail that accounts for 60 percent of its body, was discovered by Edward A. Preble in 1899. The mouse, found only along the Front Range from Colorado Springs to Cheyenne, Wyo., needs a unique habitat to survive.Preble’s mice live in well-developed plains riparian vegetation that includes a dense combination of grasses and shrubs located close to a source of water.Their numbers began to dwindle as development increased along the Front Range, and in 1998, the Preble’s mouse was placed on the federal endangered species list.”At first, the federal government listed all of El Paso County as Preble’s habitat,” said Mike Bonar, El Paso County Natural Resources manager, in an October presentation to the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners.Today, anyone owning property within 300 feet of the 100-year flood plain must apply to the FWS for a permit before making any improvements to their property. The FWS then informs property owners how much land must be set aside as “mouse habitat,” Bonar said.An entire property could be unusable to an owner under the current FWS regulations.Complying with federal regulations every time someone wants to improve their land is a long and tedious process for private homeowners, developers and the county, Bonar said.However, federal law allows counties to apply for a special permit turning the responsibility for protecting certain endangered species habitats, including the Preble’s mouse, over to local government, he said.Arguments around the legitimacy of the mouse’s endangered status spawned efforts to delist the little creature. In 2005, Rob Ramey, formerly of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, used DNA testing to prove the mouse was actually part of a larger subspecies group, which resulted in petitions from local governments asking the FWS to take the mouse off the endangered list.Delisting would mean the end of protection. But Tim King “saved the day” for the “Mighty Mouse.”In 2006, King, who is with the U.S. Geological Survey, refuted Ramey’s test results saying Ramey didn’t take into account all of the Preble’s genetic markers. After convening a panel of scientists to review both Ramey’s and King’s studies, the FWS sided with King, and efforts to delist the mouse were throttled.Thus, the county is moving forward with its application for a county wide special permit. As part of the process, the county developed a Regional Habitat Conservation Plan, Bonar said.Working closely with the FWS, the El Paso County Natural Resource Department determined the amount of land assigned to mouse habitat was too vast. In 1998, all 1.3 million acres in the county were placed under land restrictions, but a study showed the Monument, Cherry and Plum Creek watersheds, which cover 50,000 acres, were the only potential mouse habitat in the county.Additional field studies by the county and others showed the mouse only lives in close proximity to flowing streams. The studies influenced the federal government to redefine Preble’s habitat to within 300 feet of the center of a stream. Now, only 7,000 acres, limited to those portions of the county where the mouse actually exists, fall under the FWS regulations.Diane Katzenberger of the Colorado Division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the FWS has control of all species in the state but confirmed the county’s right to apply for a special permit to control the Preble mouse habitat.”The special permit will cover land owned by private individuals, developers and all county owned properties,” Katzenberger said. “It also gives counties the flexibility to build roads in Preble’s habitat by purchasing additional riparian land outside of a highway corridor.”Once the county receives the permit, each parcel of land determined to contain Preble’s habitat will be placed in high, medium or low classifications depending on the impact of development on the habitat. For example, “Homeowners of a single family residence with a medium classification would have to set aside about 2,000 square feet of land closest to the stream for mouse habitat,” Bonar said.They would also have to pay a fee of about $67 a year to cover the cost of inspecting the property, he added.To offset county costs associated with purchasing or setting aside riparian lands, the county applied for a $600,000 grant, Bonar said.After the county’s plan is submitted to the FWS, it will be published in the Federal Registry, and the public will have 90 days to comment on it, said Mark Johnston, deputy director for El Paso County Environmental Services Department. He said the county could be approved for the permit around July.The permit will give county residents an advantage over the federal permitting process. “No one will be denied the right to use their property because it contains Preble’s mouse habitat,” Bonar said.As the Preble’s mouse continues to elude the biggest cats, one thing is clear: the mouse is definitely an “indicator species,” Katzenberger said.”The fact that mouse populations have decreased is a direct indication that riparian habitat, running water with thick undergrowth used by the mouse, is decreasing along the Front Range.”

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