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Feds expand Alabama
beach mouse habitat

FORT MORGAN (AP) — A newly expanded habitat for the federally protected Alabama beach mouse includes more sandy acreage, but an environmental group's lawyer says Gulf Coast developers came out ahead on the new map.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's designation of 1,211 acres in Gulf Shores as habitat critical to the beach mouse's survival adds 200 acres to the existing protected habitat and takes effect May 1. But a Sierra Club lawyer said it didn't include key acreage eyed by developers.

FWS biologist Rob Tawes said government scientists reconfigured the critical habitat using newer science rather than simply adding more land. "We know a lot more about the mouse than we did in 1985," Tawes said.

First listed by the government as endangered in 1985, the nocturnal mouse's habitat is mainly in primary and secondary dunes in the Gulf Shores area.

Robert Wiygul of Biloxi, Miss., a lawyer for the Sierra Club in its beach mouse-related lawsuits against FWS, said by not including land for large-scale developments as critical habitat, federal regulators have given developers a free pass.

"This is, frankly, a document that's more protective of the real estate developers than the Alabama beach mouse," Wiygul told the Press-Register for a story Thursday.

Wiygul described the 41-page critical habitat ruling as flawed because it never explains what regulators plan to do to help the species recover or proliferate to a degree that it can be removed from the endangered species list.

"They absolutely won't tell you that," Wiygul said.

But Tawes, who worked on the habitat plan using 20 years of data, field inspections, trapping studies, aerial photographs and new science about beach mice, defended the federal agency, saying it has done a thorough job of identifying areas that have features essential to the mouse's survival.

A 2003 lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity accused the federal agency of not working fast enough to expand the beach mouse's critical habitat, even though the agency had acknowledged in 2000 that doing so was warranted.

In 2004, a federal judge in Mobile ordered regulators to revise the habitat. Since then, the beach mouse and its habitat have become a divisive issue along the Fort Morgan peninsula, which, along with parts of Gulf State Park, is the only place the mouse is found.

Builders and landowners say their property rights have been held captive by some residents and environmentalists who have used the mouse's endangered status to prevent development along the coast.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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