The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday supported a hunters’ petition to remove protections from a zebra, but denied a cattlemen’s petition to delist a jumping mouse.

Fish and Wildlife received a petition on May 10, 2017, from two hunters’ groups, Conservation Force and the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa, which asked it to delist the Cape mountain zebra, or downlist it from an endangered to a threatened species.

Fish and Wildlife said the petition presented “substantial or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted,” due to the reduction of threats. It boosted the petition to the next level in the delisting/downlisting process: a comprehensive 12-month status review.

The petition to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke seeks to remove or reduce Endangered Species Act protections for these zebras.

Downlisting to threatened status would open an avenue for hunting the zebras due to special exemptions on “take” (harm or mortality) of listed species. The take exemptions exist for threatened species but not for endangered ones.

This Cape Mountain zebra subspecies is found in Eastern and Western Cape Provinces of South Africa. It is the smallest zebra and survives mostly in reserves and parks, such as the Mountain Zebra National Park and Karoo National Park.

Fewer than 80 Cape zebras existed in the 1950s. They were listed under the Endangered Species Act as an endangered species in 1976. The hunters’ groups claim in their petition that the population was up to 4,800 in 2016.

These zebras increased by 572 percent from 1985 to 2015 in subpopulations in protected areas, but Fish and Wildlife added that the total population “originates from a very small gene pool, and loss of genetic diversity through interbreeding is the greatest threat to the Cape mountain zebra,” according to the agency’s bulletin on the action.

The Center for Biological Diversity called it a “sadly predictable” action for “thrill-kill hunters” under the Trump administration.

“Given Zinke’s cozy relationship with thrill-kill hunters, it’s sadly predictable that the Trump administration green-lighted trophy hunters’ effort to loosen protections for Cape mountain zebras,” Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an interview.

“Between the genetic threats and small remaining populations, we’ll be closely scrutinizing this effort to strip safeguards from these imperiled animals,” Sanerib added.

The hunting groups claimed that “the Cape mountain zebra is more limited than aided by an endangered listing, because that listing deters the licensed, regulated hunters that will incentivize continued expansion of the zebra’s habitat.”

John J. Jackson III of Conservation Force applauded the agency for advancing its petition. “Downlisting will benefit the Cape mountain zebra by encouraging greater private investment in the species, leading to increased habitat and continued population growth,” Jackson said in an email. “Downlisting advances the goals of South Africa’s management plan for the species. South Africa has a long history of restoring species through sustainable use, like the white rhino, bontebok, etc. It is a management strategy that works — witness game animal recovery in the USA through regulated hunting. The FWS’ action on this petition is also consistent with the intent of the CITES Parties, which downlisted the species for the purpose of improving trade in regulated hunting trophies in October 2016.”

CITES is short for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Wild Fauna and Flora. South Africa proposed downlisting the zebras when the convention met in October 2017. According to the cattlemen’s petition, Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Dr. Rosemarie Gnam acknowledged at that meeting that the zebras would “benefit from sustainable use and limited, regulated international trade in hunting trophies.”

But the Trump administration has come under continued fire from conservationists due to legislative actions aimed at gutting the Endangered Species Act, its lifting of bans on importing hunting trophies for elephants and lions, and the Interior Department’s formation of the International Wildlife Conservation Council to advise on international hunting.

The council is comprised of trophy hunters and gun industry executives, and lacks members with “actual scientific expertise in wildlife conservation,” according to Rhea Suh, president of the National Resources Defense Council.

The Preble's meadow mouse has a long bi-colored tail. (USFWS)
The Preble's meadow mouse has a long bi-colored tail. (USFWS)

Jumping from zebras to mice, Fish and Wildlife decided that the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse still needs federal protection. In a separate petition filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation, ranchers and developers claimed that the taxonomic determination of the mouse was incorrect. Fish and Wildlife received this petition on March 30, 2017.

It’s not the first time that Fish and Wildlife has been asked to remove protections for the mouse. In 2003 it received two petitions challenging the protections, but rejected them.

In its latest ruling, Fish and Wildlife “found that the petition did not present substantial scientific or commercial data indicating an error in taxonomic information or challenging a 2014 status review in which the service determined that the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse is a valid subspecies.”

Officials at Fish and Wildlife also highlighted in an email the 2013 study by Malaney and Cook that the petitioners cited to support their claim.

“After reviewing the petition and the study, the service continues to agree with the authors that the data from their study was not sufficient to formally change the taxonomy of the Preble’s mouse,” they said. “Therefore, the best available information presented in the petition and our files indicates that the Preble’s mouse is a valid subspecies.”

The Preble’s mouse is a big fellow, for a mouse: about 9 inches long, though its tail accounts for about 60 percent of that. It is has large hind feet for jumping, and is found in southeastern Wyoming and along the eastern edge of the Front Range in Colorado. It is listed as a threatened species.

The two petition findings are effective as of the publication date, expected to be April 17. Fish and Wildlife seeks scientific or commercial information regarding the Cape mountain zebra finding as it initiates its status review.

Zebras are one of the few species of the genus Equus, or horses, that have never been domesticated. They are social animals that live in herds. Each zebra’s stripe pattern is unique to the individual. They are classified in three species: the plains zebra, the mountain zebra, and Grévy’s zebra.

The zebra’s immediately recognizable stripe pattern, plus the letter Z, have made the species a favorite of children. Scientific studies have tried to assess the evolutionary advantages of the stripes.

Some say the stripes cause “motion dazzle” in carnivorous predators, making it harder to pick out an individual zebra to kill and eat.

Some say the stripes interrupt the predatory behavior of blood-sucking, disease-carrying insects, which are attracted to linearly polarized light.

And some say the stripes actually help to cool the zebra, by creating convection currents around the light-absorbing black and light-reflecting white stripes.