How do you save an endangered species when there is no political will to save it? How about a lawsuit?

The European Union's (E.U.) executive body, the European Commission (E.C.), has told France that it could face a lawsuit if it doesn't finally take action to protect the last few European hamsters (Cricetus cricetus) in the country. Known locally as the Alsace hamster, and also as the black-bellied hamster, the species is relatively common in Eastern Europe, but it has all but disappeared from the western half of the continent, where the last remaining population lives in Alsace, France. The hamster is protected under the E.U.'s Natura 2000 program, which aims to preserve Europe's natural heritage.

The species has been on the decline in France for years. In 2001, conservationists counted 1,167 hamsters. That number plummeted to just 161 by 2007, according to the E.C., which says that even fewer hamsters remain today.

France and the E.C. have been dancing around the issue of the Alsace hamster for years. In 2007, the E.C. threatened France with a 17 million euro fine (approximately $24 million) for not doing enough to preserve the species. France, in turn, pledged to spend around $970 per hamster to protect them, but it doesn't appear that any of that money has actually been spent.

Part of the problem is that hamsters have long been considered pests in France, where they have been known to eat crops. Farmers once used controlled flooding and poison to eliminate the hamsters, but such measures are not necessary any more, because commerce has proved to be much more effective. You see, farmers no longer grow hamster-friendly crops like cabbage, onions and beetroot. Instead, they have switched to raising corn, which is more profitable and ripens months after the hamsters awaken from hibernation in March. Without nearby access to sustenance, the hungry rodents embark on long, dangerous quests for food.

According to the E.C., the Alsace hamster needs a population of 1,500 animals and 600,000 acres of protected land in order to thrive. Right now, they exist on fewer than 8,500 acres of land.

France's official reaction to the threat of a lawsuit? It has "taken note" of the E.C.'s action and "will examine" the Commission's grievances.

Image: European hamster, via Wikipedia