Small red and yellow marker flags flap in the breeze of the quiet, windswept mounds of the West Rocky Prairie Wildlife Area southeast of Maytown in South Thurston County, marking the locations of small, reclusive Mazama pocket gophers.
The flags represent the survivors of a relocation and re-establishment experiment that has turned the wildlife area into a laboratory of sorts, where scientists are working to determine if relocating the threatened rodents from one location to another is a viable option for their survival.
Unbeknownst to the hapless gophers, they’ve become a lightning rod in a clash of values in a larger debate pitting Thurston County rural landowners against the state Growth Management Act passed by the 1990 legislature to, among other things, protect the natural environment from urban sprawl. Caught in the crossfire are Thurston County staffers tasked with implementing GMA law via a required review of the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance. To some, those much-maligned county employees have come to symbolize a government grown out of control and out of touch with taxpayers. But county officials say they are simply updating the critical areas ordinance that took effect in 1994 based on the “best available science,” as required by a 1995 update to GMA law.
Some landowners, frustrated by the real or perceived limitations placed upon their property due to the presence of gophers or other protected species habitat, began to cry foul. The volume of their protest was cranked up several notches after two town hall meetings in Rochester in March — meetings sponsored by the Thurston County Farm Bureau and presented by Freedom Works, which describes itself as a grassroots libertarian think-tank advocating for smaller, less obtrusive government and a free market ideology.
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“It’s not a faceless, nameless bureaucracy,” Glen Miller, Freedom Works’ STOP Thurston County project manager, told the crowd at a March 3 town hall meeting in Rochester, pointing to a large board with photos and names of county employees tasked with updating the CAO. “These are the faces and these are the names of the people who are actually passing these rules. ... These rules are made so you can literally do nothing on your property.”
“What’s good about this is we are drawing a lot more attention to this,” Miller told The Chronicle of Centralia last week. “The more attention we can draw to this the more people we can get involved.”
“It’s a money grab and it’s got to stop,” is the way Morgan presented the county’s CAO update to the town hall audience. “They’re trying to capitalize on these people.”
Doe Dee Fletcher and her husband, Richard, are two of those people.
The Rochester couple purchased more than 20 acres of “prime” property in 1973 with an eye toward later subdividing it as a retirement strategy. In 2007 they set out to do just that — beginning the process of short platting part of the parcel into three 21/2-acre parcels. But in 2008 they received a letter from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife stating the property might be home to Mazama pocket gophers.
A subsequent biological survey confirmed the rodents were present.
The Fletchers were informed they would need to produce a habitat management plan, and that some of the parcels would need to be fenced to restrict pet access. Others areas would be totally restricted from development. By then they already had invested $20,000 on their project.
“We sat down and decided that the county was going to take control of our property,” Doe Dee Fletcher said. “We decided to pull out.”
There are alternatives, they were told. They could pay to have the gophers relocated. The cost: $1,000 per gopher, according to Fletcher, who expressed anger and frustration at the restrictions on her nest egg.
But relocating the gophers is actually an alternative being studied by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife through a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society. The study also has the interest of the Department of Defense, who may help fund the study in the future.
Like Thurston County and private landowners, the DOD is required to adhere to the Endangered Species Act. Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which boasts a large population of the threatened pocket gophers, is hoping relocation will be a viable option for the growing military facility, according to a presentation made to the Thurston County Planning Commission in March by a JBLM ecologist.
MOVING GOPHERS TO A NEW HOME
That’s where the research at the West Rocky Prairie Wildlife Area by Research Scientist Gail Olson and Research Assistant Lisa Hiam comes in. The pair has been working to find methods of reestablishing the threatened pocket gopher in such protected areas as Wolf Haven and the relatively untouched West Rocky Prairie.
For two years, Olson and Hiam have been trapping pocket gophers at the Olympia Airport and relocating them at the West Rocky Prairie Wildlife Area. Of the 210 that were relocated in 2009, only 17 survived. Lessons from that first batch were learned and applied to a second batch of 200 that were relocated in 2010. Their survival rate is still being determined. The gopher’s natural survival rate is around 10 to 20 percent, Olson said. The viability of reestablishing Mazama pocket gophers is part of a broader research effort, according to Olson.
“Prairie restoration and research are pretty active areas right now,” she said. “It’s in (JBLM’s) interest to help us to move threatened species.”
Olson admitted that not everyone agreed with the need to protect the rodents, noting that many consider gophers — which are often confused with moles — a pest.
“Part of it is a value judgment sort of thing,” she said. “It’s a nationwide issue.”
But like JBLM, local landowners might benefit from the research she and Hiam are conducting. Their findings may be significant if the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife determines the Mazama pocket gopher should be listed as endangered. Such a listing could come with even stricter land use restrictions than what the STOP Thurston County members are protesting.
“Healthy populations don’t get listed,” Olson said. “Endangered species covers not only the animal, but its habitat as well.”
So while researchers conduct their studies, the process of updating Thurston County’s Critical Area’s Ordinance moves ahead. The final draft CAO is in the final stages of completion. Once the Thurston County Planning Commission completes its review, they will forward their recommendations to Thurston County commissioners. A public hearing will be held before final approval. Comments can be submitted to the county at any time.
“In a democracy everyone gets a chance to have their say,” Clark said.