Mark Clark’s 5-acre farm off Old Highway 99 Southeast near Tumwater was once part of the historic, nearly 650-acre George Bush homestead.
Clark and his wife, Kathleen, bought it in October 2009, and established a Community Supported Agriculture farm, which produces vegetables grown without pesticides, including beets, potatoes, broccoli, squash and garlic.
The property’s rich soil also boasts something that strikes fear in some Thurston County property owners: pocket gophers.
“They are everywhere on this property,” Clark said.
Once considered a pest, four subspecies of the Mazama pocket gophers were listed in April 2014 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
A threatened species is one that’s likely to become endangered if steps aren’t taken to protect it. The critters — known as the Olympia, Roy Prairie, Tenino and Yelm pocket gophers — are found only in Thurston and Pierce counties.
Along with the listing, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials designated 1,607 acres in Thurston County as critical habitat for the Olympia, Tenino and Yelm pocket gophers. A special rule will allow continued agricultural activities on farming and ranch lands, according to the agency’s new release.
Two developers recently applied for “incidental take permits” for pocket gophers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for future building projects in Thurston County. Both permit requests include draft habitat conservation plans that are up for public comment.
The Endangered Species Act prohibits the taking of a species, which is defined as an activity that will “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect” a species. Incidental take permits allow certain activities that might result in some harm to some gophers.
“If a developer has an action that may take a listed species, they approach us to do a habitat conservation plan (HCP),” said Tim Romanski, a biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
“Nationwide, we’ve probably done 500-plus HCPs, from all the way from Alabama beach mice to spotted owl.”
Of the two developer HCPs that were recently submitted, the Meier Group is requesting a five-year incidental take permit for 6.4 acres of property in the city of Tumwater where the firm wants to develop an office building with paved parking.
To mitigate the nearly 2.7 acres of soil disturbance where gophers live, the Meier Group has proposed buying 2.5 aces of Bush Prairie Farm’s development rights.
It’s a move that’s supported by the Clarks. He is executive director of the Washington State Conservation Commission, and she is a registered dietitian who works for the state Department of Health.
When they bought their farm, they didn’t know its historic significance or that it was an oasis for threatened species. But they knew they wanted to help with soil conservation, Clark said. Selling the property’s development rights would help them with that goal.
It would “keep it as a historic site and a farm forever,” Clark said.
Right now, the farm, which is near the Olympia Regional Airport, is an area zoned light industrial.
“Those warehouses over there,” Clark said, pointing to the neighboring lot, “could be warehouses over here” without the sale of the development rights.
The other permit is being requested by Kaufman Real Estate, Kaufman Holdings, and Liberty Leasing and Construction. They are asking for a 20-year take on several listed species, including the Olympia and Yelm pocket gophers, the endangered Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, and the threatened streaked horned lark.
The permit would cover 13 properties in Thurston County totaling 204 acres; the habitat conservation plan would set up two conservation sites totaling 87 acres that would be managed for 100 years by an endowment.
Developers aren’t the only ones working with the federal government to figure out a way to work with the pocket gopher restrictions. The city of Tumwater and Thurston County officials also are working on habitat conservation plans.
The county’s plan and take permit would define its approach to development and permitting for as long as 30 years, officials say. If all goes as planned, the take permit would be in place in time for the 2017 building season.
COUNTY LAUNCHES GOPHER REVIEW PROCESS
In June, Thurston County began using a review process that was recommended by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in response to the gopher listing.
The new gopher-review portion of the building permit process can include as many as three property site visits that can be conducted only between June 1 and Oct. 30, when the gophers are most active, according to county associate planner Andrew Deffobis.
The visits must be at least 30 days apart and include a three- or four-person team of county, state or federal prairie experts who walk the property and look at soils, vegetation and other physical characteristics of the land, checking for signs of protected species, according to the county’s website.
“We reviewed probably 400-plus properties this summer and cleared close to 90 percent of them,” said Romanski, of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
If gophers are present, property owners must work directly with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials to develop a habitat conservation plan to protect the species. That might include building a house on another area of the property or performing some type of mitigation effort, according to Deffobis.
There’s a “full suite of options” that builders and developers can look into, but they’ll have to work that out with federal officials, Deffobis said.
If gophers are not found, the county’s permitting process continues as normal.
BIG DELAYS FOR SOME BUILDING PROJECTS
So far, one of the biggest effects of the gopher review process has been to condense Thurston County’s building season.
Earlier this fall, Ken Ward, 65, of north King County, had heavy equipment delivered to his property just outside of Yelm. He and his wife were ready to build their retirement home, but he said their county permits were held up when they didn’t get selected for the 2015 gopher review process.
They had submitted their application for a review in August, right around the county’s recommended deadline, but it’s been pending ever since, Ward said.
Now it will be another year before he begins building his home. Ward said he and his wife have taken their King County home off the market, and laid off their designer and contractors.
He said he worries that waiting another year will affect their construction loan because it will be based on their retirement income levels.
“It’s frustrating,” Ward said. “I am paying, right now, taxes on my land, and I can’t do anything on it.”
Fred Colvin, who has a nearly 520-acre cattle ranch near Tenino, said his property already has a conservation easement in place. That agreement restricts uses and development for about 90 percent of the ranch, with rules that are above and beyond what might be expected to protect gophers, he said.
But he said many people in rural Thurston County are worried about the effect the pocket gopher will have on future plans for their land.
“For a lot of people in ag, the property is kind of a savings account, if you will,” said Colvin, 67, whose family has farmed in the area since around 1850. “It’s where they’ve invested for years, and it’s their savings account.”
Property rights activist Glen Morgan, who has 30 acres between Tenino and Rochester, said county and federal officials are going too far with the gopher habitat rules and restrictions.
The gopher review process “destroys most properties in south county,” he said.
Although the county’s draft habitat conservation plan isn’t expected to be put out until next year, Morgan points to a recent county presentation that indicated property owners could be charged thousands of dollars in mitigation fees if they want to develop land that has gophers on it.
“This is kind of a war on the poor in Thurston County, especially the rural poor,” said Morgan, who is executive director of the Enumclaw-based Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights, a nonpartisan political action committee.
He believes a political shakeup on the Board of County Commissioners and a reorganization of staff in the county’s Resource Stewardship Department could change the gopher policies. No other counties are adopting such strict requirements for pocket gophers, he said.
Besides putting some space between the county and federal staff who manage the pocket gophers, Morgan said he’d like to see genetic testing done on pocket gophers to prove — or disprove — that the ones in Thurston County are different from those found in other areas of the country.
“If nothing else, I would allow some science to be brought into the equation,” Morgan said.
LEARNING TO LIVE WITH GOPHERS
If a portion of Bush Prairie Farm is set aside for gopher habitat, the Clarks and the property’s future owners will have to actively work to maintain it.
They’ll need to keep invasive weeds such as blackberry vines and Scotch broom from taking over, and they will be subject to periodic visits from agencies that monitor gopher habitat, he said. They might need to plant certain native plants or trees.
They’ll need to live with tunnels near the surface and gopher mounds that are similar to a mole hill, only flatter and made of finer soil.
“I think it will be a learning experience,” Clark said. “…We’ll see what works good and what would help (the gophers).”
For now, the Clarks are finding ways to farm with the gophers. One of the gophers’ favorite places is the greenhouse.
“They think it’s Palm Springs,” Clark said.
The couple has experimented with planting in ways that keep gopher damage to a minimum. Many of their plants are set in baskets formed out of chicken wire, which doesn’t stop the gophers, but makes it less convenient for them to get a snack.
And generally they plant extra, knowing that the gophers will take a share or two.
“It has us farming in a way that’s more expensive than what we’d do if they weren’t here,” Clark said.
But even with the gophers — which they don’t love, but they say they’re OK living with — Clark says farming is a way of life and they wouldn’t trade it.
“We both have it in our blood,” he said.
GOPHER REVIEW FACTS
▪ Thurston County’s 2015 gopher review process ran June 1 to Oct. 30, when the gophers are most active. “We do not yet know the process or timing of the next review season,” states the county’s website. “We are waiting for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide that information. We expect to know more by the end of November 2015.”
▪ Projects in gopher areas require two or three visits by a team of county, state or federal prairie experts.
▪ The visits must be 30 days apart.
▪ Three visits are required for sites within 600 feet of known gopher presence. The third visit must be done in September or October.
▪ During a review, staff members look at soils, vegetation and other physical characteristics of the land. They don’t enter a house or building.
To view the draft habitat conservation plans for the Meier Group and for Kaufman Real Estate, Kaufman Holdings, and Liberty Leasing and Construction, go to fws.gov/wafwo/.