DENVER — As Coloradans try to rebuild after record floods devastated the state last year, some are claiming that a 9-inch, slug-eating mouse with an impressive vertical leap is standing in the way.
A Republican congressman is seeking a waiver from the Endangered Species Act after a federal agency warned this week that concerns about the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, a species found only in the uplands of Colorado and neighboring Wyoming, may stall flood-recovery efforts in communities still struggling with the disaster's aftermath.
Rep. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, sent a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking for the waiver, accusing the Federal Emergency Management Agency of being more concerned about the mouse than with people.
"This mouse has cost millions of dollars to Colorado taxpayers already," Mr. Gardner told CBS4 in Denver. "It threatens the livelihood of agriculture and now it's threatening flood recovery efforts. This is absolutely incredible."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency issued a guidance Tuesday requiring flood-relief projects to consider the impact on the Preble's mouse, acknowledging that it could delay recovery projects, or face fines and other penalties, including loss of federal disaster dollars.
"As part of the federal and state-funded public works recovery program following the fall flooding in Colorado, there are many projects with the potential of harming the Preble's mouse and/or habitat," FEMA said in a backgrounder. "The legally required reviews may cause some delay in projects undertaken in the Preble's mouse habitat."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials are strongly rejecting the charge that concern for the mouse's survival is delaying the disaster-relief efforts and are calling news reports inaccurate.
"We are working very closely with FEMA and other partners to make sure important flood-recovery projects proceed on time while ensuring no harm occurs to species listed under the [Endangered Species Act]," Noreen Walsh, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Mountain-Prairie Region, said in a statement released by the agency Wednesday. "But let me be clear, the Preble's and other federally listed species have not, and will not, delay flood recovery efforts in Colorado."
The uproar emerges as House Republicans in Washington ramp up calls to overhaul the Endangered Species Act. A House working group issued a report Tuesday that recommends updating the 1973 law, which has posted an anemic 2 percent species recovery rate in its 40-year history.
No species has ever been removed from the endangered list, although the Oregon chub, a fish, may become the first before the end of the year. Critics say the law's dismal track record highlights the need to find another way to balance species preservation with competing interests.
"Progress needs to be measured not by the number of species listed, especially as a result of litigation, but by recovering and de-listing those that are currently listed and working cooperatively on-the-ground to prevent new ones from being listed," said the report.
The Preble's mouse has been listed as "threatened," although Mr. Gardner pointed out in his letter that debate still rages over whether the species is indeed in danger of extinction.
"FEMA's announcement is deeply troubling and I find it reprehensible that the federal government has chosen a mouse over people — a mouse whose ESA status remains questionable at best," Mr. Gardner.
In Colorado, Republican state Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg said thousands of residents are still struggling with the fallout from the deadly September floods, which ran 200 miles along the Front Range, damaged more than 19,000 structures and destroyed about 2,000 homes.
Eight people were killed in the flooding, and damage has been estimated at $1 billion.
"For the federal government to put concerns of a field mouse ahead of Colorado families struggling to recover from the floods is deeply concerning," Mr. Sonnenberg said.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Preble's meadow jumping mouse was listed as threatened in 1998 and is one of three federally protected species found in the Colorado Front Range.
"The flash floods of September 2013 flooded, destroyed or altered many riparian habitats throughout Preble's range in Colorado and likely drowned individual mice or entire populations," the service said in Wednesday's statement. "The flash floods also adversely impacted federally designated critical habitat for the Preble's."
The mouse's place on the threatened list is itself a source of controversy. The state of Wyoming and a private group, Coloradans for Water Conservation, have been seeking for more than a decade to remove the Preble's meadow jumping mouse from federal protection. Fish and Wildlife officials rejected the most recent petition to de-list the mouse in May.
The South Boulder Creek drainage has been listed as "critical habitat" for the mouse, but Mr. Gardner argued that the Endangered Species Act allows for exemptions in areas designated as major disaster areas.
"The fact that so many people were impacted, thousands of people lost their homes or had their homes damaged, and here we are having federal relief dollars held up by a mouse that may not even be endangered — it's absolutely ridiculous," Mr. Gardner said.
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