Thurston County commissioners reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife last week on the updated interim review process for the endangered Mazama pocket gopher.
“We’re moving ahead with what we feel is the least amount of risk for Thurston County to not be in violation of the Endangered Species Act, while giving some certainty to folks impacted by the gopher,” Commissioner Gary Edwards said.
The review process for the presence of the endangered gopher in south Thurston County and elsewhere has slowed progress and limited options when it comes to developing property.
The interim process is updated annually and will serve as the county’s guidelines until an agreement on a Habitat Conservation Plan is reached. The Habitat Conservation Plan will mitigate impacts on gopher habitat in the county, allowing property owners to build on their property.
Under the newly adopted process, gopher inspections are reduced from three to two for projects with soils considered by wildlife officials to be highly preferred by the pocket gopher. Inspections will take place June through October, the same timeframe as before, but the final inspection can occur as early as August. Previously, it was required that it be done in September or October.
Of the site reports Thurston County has revised by April 12, the majority of gopher activity was found on the first or second visit, Thurston County Director of Resource Stewardship said. In 2015, gopher activity was detected on 24 sites, 20 of which were found on the first visit. The other four were discovered on the second visit. In 2016, 37 sites had gopher activity detected. The activity was found on the first visit on 36 of those sites.
“That is quite an inconvenience to put on the public for 1 percent,” Edwards said.
Thurston County processes around 4,000 building permit applications each year, Brent said. About 400, need to go through the gopher-review process. Staff works five days a week processing permits and conducting gopher reviews.
Also under the interim process, if no gopher activity is found by the second inspection for projects in highly preferred soils, the county will have the resident sign an affidavit stating if gopher activity is found, they will self report it to USFW. Edwards said he is confident people will report if they find gopher activity. He doesn’t think much activity will be found after the second visit.
“Our country is basically based on honesty,” he said. “I don’t think we need government in our back pocket at all times.”
Project applications will now receive priority over non-project applications. In the past, landowners could apply to have their land inspected by the county for gopher activity if they didn’t have a project permit application. The county will no longer offer these inspections to help alleviate some of the backlog. Non-project applicants who have already submitted an application can change their application to a project application by June 30 and still have their property inspected.
To help alleviate some of the backlog, USFW will send an additional three or four biologists to aid the county’s single biologist already conducting inspections.
Edwards said the updated process is a small step, but he doesn’t believe the gopher needs to be protected in Thurston County because it is not protected elsewhere. He expects a deal to be reached on the Habitat Conservation Plan by the end of this year. The last issue needing to be settled is how much it will cost. Estimates are between $105 million and $150 million over 30 years. Still undecided is where that money will come from.
“I truly believe this is a social experiment to see what the public pushback will be,” Edwards said about the Habitat Conservation Plan. “If we are forced into a Habitat Conservation Plan, you can bet they (the USFW) will come to Lewis County.”
Edwards said he is not certain what USFW will do, but suspects other counties in the state will soon have to go through the same process to protect pocket gophers.