Vail Daily column: Finding common ground
People from all different backgrounds have unknowingly been brought together concerning the recent listing of the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse under the Endangered Species Act. As we’ve seen with this legislation in the past, opinions and views clash together and solutions seem impossible to reach. Already two lawsuits have been filed against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the listing. Stakeholders must utilize this opportunity to speak with equanimity and productively collaborate to find the common ground that lies within the problem.
As of June 10, this small mouse was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This means that the subspecies is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. Recent studies indicate that the mouse is only known to exist at seven isolated mountainous locations in New Mexico, Arizona and a small portion of southern Colorado. This means that from the 39 historically known locations, a 74 percent overall reduction was observed.
The characteristics of this subspecies and its life history predispose it to be of high conservation concern. The mouse is naturally rare, meaning it’s historically been uncommon, but it is also a habitat specialist. The exclusive habitat it requires is a riparian community, with constant flowing water, floodplains, soil moisture, and ground cover up to an elevation of about 8,000 feet. The mouse requires very tall dense abundant herbaceous plants, such as sedges, willows, alders and forbs. In addition, the habitat must have dry soils for nesting.
This mouse hibernates for about nine months out of the year, longer than most mammals, and accumulating a sufficient amount of fat reserves is critical to surviving the harsh winter. It’s active for about three to four months and during this time it depends immensely on the growing season of grasses and forbs for food. With such rigid requirements, a changing environment presents many problems for this critter.
Destroying Its Habitat
The environmental changes accumulating through history can help explain how the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse came to be imperiled. The expansion west, cattle grazing, water diversion, habitat fragmentation, oil and gas drilling, commercial and residential development and increased recreation have all shaped and forever altered the landscape. The specific niche that this mouse occupies has been pushed aside to accommodate these changes, but now it’s time for us to decide its fate.
A Bellwether Mouse
Herein lies the conflict: The ranchers need land for their cattle to graze, campers need space to pitch a tent, farmers need water for irrigating crops, off-highway vehicle recreationists need roads to ride, and the mouse needs land to live. Is there any common ground? Of course, it’s planted in the fact that the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse is a bellwether. This term means that, like a bell on the leader of a flock of sheep, the mouse rings as an indicator of a healthy riparian community. Healthy riparian areas protect water quality, reduce erosion, stabilize stream flow levels, support a diversity of animals and plants, and do so many immeasurable environmental services that it’s hard to quantify. Thus, the mouse uncovers the bigger problem, the loss of healthy ecosystems where it once lived. Without healthy ecosystems, the world wouldn’t be green, animals wouldn’t thrive and no life could be supported.
Importance of Healthy Ecosystem
The common ground we all need to recognize in problems like this is the importance of a healthy ecosystem. There is no insurance against extinction or degraded environmental quality, but there are the decisions we make and the actions we take as a community. Coming together on this common ground, the answer is evident — by saving this mouse from extinction, we inadvertently help preserve our living world.
Morgan Ballinger is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center who prompts everyone to get outside, adventure, take a journey and spark their own curious nature.