Gopher ruling threatens vitality of county

January 13, 2013 

On Dec. 11, 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a proposed rule to list the Mazama pocket gopher as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The proposed ESA listing would apply only to the Mazama pocket gopher subspecies found in Thurston County and on Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The federal government has determined that gophers subspecies found in other Washington counties are not threatened.

The federal government claims that the proposed ESA listing for Thurston County species is needed to protect the Mazama pocket gopher as part of larger threatened “prairie ecosystem.” The federal government’s reference to “prairie ecosystem” implies that the impact of listing the gopher under the ESA would be limited to rural areas of Thurston County. In fact, this is not true. Some of the greatest impacts of federal listing would be felt in our cities and urban growth areas – places not commonly thought of by Thurston County residents as the “prairie.”

Why is this true? Because of where the gopher lives. Some of the largest remaining intact populations of Mazama pocket gophers are found in the city of Tumwater. Soils commonly associated with Mazama pocket gophers dominate Thurston County’s urban areas, including Tumwater, Yelm, Lacey, Tenino, East Olympia, Rochester, Rainier, and Grand Mound. Biologists have found evidence of Mazama pocket gophers in all of these places.

These urban areas of Thurston County are already developed or have been long-planned to be developed with residential, commercial, and industrial uses under Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA). Our community has invested tens of millions of dollars to develop and plan the public roads, utilities, schools and services needed to serve anticipated growth in these areas over the last 20 years. Our citizens have invested tens of millions of dollars more in properties and businesses in these areas expecting growth to occur.

Unfortunately, it is precisely the type of growth our community has long planned for its urban areas that the federal government has decided is a threat to the Mazama pocket gopher. If the proposed federal listing becomes final, the federal government will exert control over our local land-use planning and issuance of individual permits for gopher-occupied properties, imposing as-yet-unknown mitigation requirements at as-yet-unknown cost. What we do know is that a final listing will result in loss not only to property value but also to potential growth, investment, development and jobs, just as our community needs these things most.

There is simply no need for Thurston County to be forced into the uncertain and potentially costly path of ESA regulation in order to ensure that the Mazama pocket gopher is protected from extinction. The state of Washington listed the Mazama pocket gopher as threatened under state law in 2006 and will soon publish a recovery plan to ensure the continued survival of the species. All local governments in Thurston County use and incorporate WDFW management recommendations to protect Mazama pocket gophers and their habitat under state-mandated Critical Areas Ordinances.

Our system of local regulation provides robust protection for Mazama pocket gophers within a well-established framework of state and local GMA planning processes that is entirely unique in the United States. Washington state and Thurston County local governments can protect and are protecting the Mazama pocket gopher in a manner that allows us our local community, and not the federal government, to plan and control development of our urban areas.

Federal control over the future development of Thurston County’s urban areas is simply not necessary to ensure that the Mazama pocket gopher will not follow its northern relatives from Tacoma to extinction. Each of us stands to lose if the proposed listing of the Mazama pocket gopher becomes final.

David Schaffert is the president and CEO of the Thurston County Chamber, a business community development organization with more than 1,250 members. Ron Harding is the mayor of Yelm, a city of 7,100 population. Mike Kirby is the superintendent of the Tumwater School District, which has 12 schools serving approximately 6,160 students.

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