Panhandle Beaches Set Aside for Mice

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The federal government is putting the brakes on the exploding development along the Gulf Coast.

Late last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated nearly 6,200 acres of coastal Alabama and the Florida Panhandle as critical habitat for three sub-species of endangered beach mice, which is going to cost landowners and developers a lot of money over the next 20 years.

Beach builders will have one more regulation to deal with in the future. Before the first bulldozer can move a grain of sand, the land will have to be surveyed for the existence of protected beach mice.

"The main purpose of critical habitat is just to raise the level of knowledge in the public's eye of where the critter occurs and what folks can do to conserve and preserve it the most," explained Janet Mizzi of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Beach mice are small, nocturnal rodents that live in the sand dunes from Mobile, Alabama to Cape San Blas in Gulf County.

They range in color from nearly white to brown, blending-in with the color of the sand where they live.

There are eight subspecies of beach mice, five of them living along the Florida and Alabama Gulf Coast.

The Perdido Key, Choctawhatchee and St. Andrews mice are endangered. The last studies done in 2004, show that some of the subspecies could have as few as 50 mice left. Environmentalists won two different court cases to force this new land designation regulation, protecting the mice.

The 6,200 acres, most of it in the Panhandle, includes federal and state parks as well as privately owned land.

The Wildlife Service estimates the cost of saving the three subspecies of beach mice at $93 to $175 million dollars over the next 20 years. That cost would be paid by developers who have to redesign or restrict beachside projects that would harm the nocturnal creatures.

Mizzi says protecting the mice does have benefits.

"When you're protecting the beach mice, you're protecting the dune system and the dune habitats that are not only important for protecting structures inland, but they're also one of the main reasons people come to our gulf shores,” she said. “It's the beauty, and keeping the natural system in tact."

Mizzi also says beach mice are an indicator of the health of the dunes, since they live inside the mounds near the water's edge.

The land designation rule becomes effective Saturday, November 11.