Gopher on its way to list of threatened

ckrotzer@theolympian.comDecember 11, 2012 

The federal government has launched the process of listing the Mazama pocket gopher as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It joins two other South Sound prairie species also on their way to being listed.

Evidence suggests that four of nine Mazama pocket gopher subspecies are threatened with extinction, according the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

To address that threat, the listing would designate 9,234 acres of prairie habitat in Thurston and Pierce counties where the gophers live as critical habitat.

That designation could limit use of the property, including property on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The process will take a year and will include opportunities for public comment.

The status of the prairie species have been a concern for a decade. In October, Fish and Wildlife proposed the Endangered Species Act listing for the Taylor’s Checkerspot butterfly, which was determined to be in danger of becoming extinct, and the streaked horned lark, which is threatened with extinction.

The Mazama pocket gopher was proposed for listing at the same time, but it was delayed by 60 days after a letter from Gov. Chris Gregoire and the director of Fish and Wildlife requested more time to collect and process information.

The three species live in South Sound prairie lands. Only about 10 percent of the original prairie remains undeveloped; less than 3 percent of that 10 percent is considered high-quality habitat.

The possible protection of the prairie species has raised concerns for landowners in rural Thurston County because the listings could limit land use and growth.

The county began creating a Habitat Conservation Plan that would set up a one-stop shop where landowners and builders could go for permits, ensuring they are compliant with both county and federal laws.

“The purpose of the Habitat Conservation Plan is to ensure long-term economic stability and sustainable development,” said Ken Berg of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If the plan is completed and approved, land owners and business interests will have certainty that when the county issues a permit, that permit is compliant with the Endangered Species Act.”

Prairie lands are also protected under the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance.

Thurston County Planning Director Scott Clark said the county does not see any significant impact until the final determination of the species listing is made late next year.

“We are making sure we stay in front of this stuff by developing a plan to protect the species and how we avoid mitigation impacts,” Clark said.

Land-use restrictions caused by the pocket gopher and the streaked horned lark would be less severe because both are potentially being listed as “threatened” instead of “endangered.”

Because of that distinction, part of the listing proposal includes exemptions for small residential land owners and their property. Any use of the property that would not otherwise require a permit from Thurston County would not require a permit from the Endangered Species Act, under the proposed exemption.

“The purpose of this special rule is to remove restrictions on smaller residential landowners that do not require building permits,” Berg said.

But the possible listings not only pertain to Thurston and Pierce county property owners; they also can affect Lewis-McChord.

Much of the base training ground is on prairie lands. Berg said the staff at JBLM has been planning for the possible endangered species listing for a decade.

“They are ready for this and they need help from the larger communities to conserve the prairie around the base,” Berg said. “If land use around the base is not compatible, they will become an island of prairies in a sea of development that will affect their ability to train.”

Not being able to train on the prairie could mean soldiers at the base would have to go elsewhere, Berg said.

“If they can’t train at Fort Lewis, they will have to go somewhere else, and that will probably be out of the state. … None of us want that,” Berg said. “They can’t do it alone; they need help from their neighbors, and their neighbors are Pierce and Thurston counties and the cities inside those counties because they have a shared responsibility for the prairies.”

Fish and Wildlife also ruled Monday that the Tacoma pocket gopher, another species reviewed for protection, is extinct.

“It’s a tragedy that the Tacoma pocket gopher went extinct waiting for protection,” said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, which first petitioned the federal agency to list the pocket gopher under ESA in 2002. “Endangered Species Act protection will give the other subspecies a fighting chance, and will also protect their habitat — some of the few remaining prairie grasslands.”

Some community leaders have expressed fears that an ESA listing of the pocket gopher in South Sound could lock up land otherwise suited for development, including future school sites and properties inside the urban growth boundaries.

“It could disrupt the ability of our communities to plan under the state Growth Management Act,” said Dave Schaffert, president of the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce. “Our urban areas could face significant challenges.”

Pocket gophers are stocky little burrowing animals that build tunnels used as habitat by other critters, including squirrels, toads, snakes and frogs. They grow to about 11 inches long and serve as prey for snakes, owls, weasels and hawks. They also aerate the soil and stimulate plant growth.

There is a 60-day public comment period on the proposed listing, allowing the public to provide additional information on the proposal. Anyone with relevant information can submit their comments electronically on the Federal Registry’s website at www.regulations.gov.

Chelsea Krotzer: 360-753-5476 ckrotzer@theolympian.com theolympian.com/thisjustin @chelseakrotzer Staff writer John Dodge contributed to this report.

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