Thurston County Commissioners say they have found success in speeding up reviews to identify Mazama pocket gophers on property.
Meanwhile, they are negotiating a county Habitat Conservation Plan with the federal government to help the critter that is listed as endangered by the federal government and protected by the County’s Critical Areas Ordinance and state law.
In Thurston County, if a property owner applies for a building permit, the county conducts on-site reviews for the presence of gophers if the project is on a mapped gopher soil or near a confirmed gopher site.
The commissioners adopted a new process in May that reduces the number of site visits from three to two if gopher activity is found during the first review. The time when inspections are conducted — when gophers are active — has been increased by a month, and shovel-ready projects were given the priority.
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“We have been able to move it along for the citizens,” Commissioner Gary Edwards told The Chronicle in Centralia. “That is our goal.”
The inspection season started on June 1 with 130 building permit applications needing gopher reviews compared to 111 last year. Thus far, the county says biologists have conducted 159 inspections and have finished the review process for about a dozen applicants.
The county received 1,700 permits prior to June 1, with a small fraction requiring a review, a county press release said.
The only projects requiring reviews are those that would disturb the ground on soils preferred by gophers. Last year, only 10 percent of the 4,000 permits processed required a gopher review.
Meanwhile, if the county and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife can agree on a habitat conservation plan, then the review process would become even more predictable and streamlined.
On Wednesday, the commissioners received an update on the discussions between the USFW and the county.
If the county continues with the plan it is drafting, the plan would cover 88 percent of the anticipated build out for the next 30 years, according to a staff report. It would also streamline the permitting process and eliminate the gopher review season. But it also would require applicants to pay a fee when the permit is granted, and may require county financial involvement as well.
This option is about a year from being completed and implemented.
A second option is to start the whole process over, which would take several years, but may reduce the overall cost of the plan. Currently, the estimated cost of the plan is between $105 million and $150 million over the next 30 years.
The third option is to have no plan, which would allow conservation funds currently directed at the gopher to go to other efforts. But the county would be exposed to possible litigation, the gopher reviews would continue, and the county may have to repay $609,000 in grant funds.
The goal of the commissioners and the county staff is to find a middle ground where people can build and the environment is protected, Edwards said.
“We are still trying to come up with the best negotiation outcome with Fish and Wildlife,” Edwards said.