The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is set to begin an assessment to determine whether four species that live in Thurston County should be added to the federal endangered-species list, a move that could provide additional protections for a gopher that some residents consider a pest.
The Mazama pocket gopher, Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, streaked horned lark and Mardon skipper butterfly have been candidates for listing for more than 10 years. Money now is available to move forward with an assessment, said Ted Thomas, senior ecologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Public comment will be accepted after the assessment is completed, culminating in a proposed rule in May 2012. It will involve updated information about the species and look at five threats, including habitat destruction, inadequacy of regulations and disease or predators. Service staff members will rely on information gathered by county and state agencies, conservation partners, the public and tribes, Thomas said.
The assessment is extensive and includes habitats in Pierce County owned by the Department of Defense and the states of California and Oregon, Thomas said. The last time a species that exists in Thurston County was added to the federal list was in 1997, he added.
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The Mazama gopher, which already is listed as threatened by state Fish and Wildlife, has been thrust into the spotlight during the county’s update of its critical-areas ordinance. Some property owners and STOP Thurston County, a program created by the Freedom Foundation to fight the proposed updates, call the gopher a pest and question whether it needs protection.
Glen Morgan, program director for STOP Thurston County, said past species-population studies have been flawed and that the Freedom Foundation has solutions to improve the habitat and species without affecting property owners.
If any of the four species are added to the federal endangered list, a whole new batch of protections could come into play, including making it illegal to trap, shoot or harass the animal, Thomas said.
County planning director Scott Clark said updates and prairie protections included in the critical-areas ordinance will help the county get in front of the assessment and stay in control of how development is regulated in those areas.
“I think if we identify the areas that need protection and put those protections in place, we’ll avoid a lot more onerous regulations,” he said.
Thomas said it’s too early to discuss regulations that could result if a federal plan is put into place, but that the county would be involved in that discussion.
Legislation is in the works for a pocket gopher study led by Fish and Wildlife; wildlife officials say a study already is under way.
Fish and Wildlife is required by law to review the population of listed species, said Greg Schirato, acting deputy assistant director of the wildlife program.
While the state review and federal study are separate, the state will share its population data, Schirato said.
Nate Hulings: 360-754-5476, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.theolympian.com/outsideoly