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Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

Salt marsh mouse: An endangered species becomes a stimulus scapegoat

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The salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris) has been on the Endangered Species List since 1970. So why, after all of this time, has it gotten so much media attention in the last few weeks?


It turns out that the mouse has become a convenient scapegoat for attacks against President Obama's stimulus package, thanks to often-repeated, and often debunked, claims that the mouse will receive $30 million dollars of that stimulus money.


The story reared its ugly head February 11 in a report in The Washington Times titled "Stimulus has $30M to save Pelosi's harvest mouse," which reported on claims from House Minority Leader John A. Boehner's (R-Ohio) office that the stimulus package contained "more than $30 million for wetlands conservation in [Nancy Pelosi's] San Francisco Bay area district, including work she previously championed to protect the salt marsh harvest mouse."


Despite Pelosi's denial in the very same article, the assertion was quickly repeated by Fox Business, The New York Times, and again last night, when Republican Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, gave the traditional GOP response to Obama's first address to Congress. (See this post for more on Jindal's reaction to Obama's speech, including Jindal's comments on volcano monitoring.)


Of course, all of this ignores the fact that this has long since been proven wrong, and that even other conservatives have attacked the strategy of using the mouse to assail the stimulus package.


It also ignores the fact that the salt marsh harvest mouse really does still need help, and thanks to the Endangered Species Act, the government has a legal requirement to help it. Its very nature makes it vulnerable: it's less than three inches long, lives under a year, and reproduces slowly. The mouse's habitat has shrunk by about 85% (.rtf) since 1850, and currently faces massive ecological change due to freshwater intrusion from area sewage treatment plants. The freshwater is killing off pickleweed, upon which the salt water harvest mouse depends for both its food and protection from predators and high tides. To date, little genetic information about the mouse is available, making efforts to boost its population difficult.


Back in the original Washington Times article, Boehner spokesperson Michael Steel asked "So can Speaker Pelosi explain exactly how we will improve the American economy by helping the adorable little critter?" Pelosi's spokesperson fired back that even though the mouse claims were false, "(wetlands) restoration is key to economic activity including farming, fisheries, recreation, and clean water."

Image: Wikipedia

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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