Thurston Co. explainer: What is the Habitat Conservation Plan?
The Mazama pocket gopher: A small animal — less than a foot from nose to tail — with an important role in Thurston County’s building permitting process.
Anyone looking to build on Thurston County land that is suitable gopher habitate is required to first rule out the presence of the pocket gopher subspecies that are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. So, if a project is planned on gopher soils, site visits are conducted to determine whether gophers are living there.
This Friday, Sept. 13, marks an important deadline for people going through that process: 4 p.m. that day is the deadline to submit building project applications if they want the county to conduct gopher reviews this year. People who hire their own consultant to conduct the reviews, on the other hand, have until Oct. 18 to submit a completed report. A list of gopher consultants is available online via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Applications submitted after the deadline are not guaranteed an on-site review in 2019,” a press release from the county reads.
Gopher reviews are required for about 10 percent of the 4,000 applications the county receives each year, according to a county press release. Vincent McDowell, project coordinator with Thurston County Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED), said this year has been fairly typical, with approximately 500 applications subject to gopher review. Not all of those require full field screening, though, he wrote in an email to The Olympian.
The office has received about 3,000 applications total so far this year, according to McDowell.
He clarified that the reviews aren’t strictly limited to projects on gopher soils: They’re also required for sites within 300 feet of gopher soils and sites within 600 feet of a site known to be occupied by gophers.
A map of gopher soils is available through the county online via the Thurston GeoData Center, and McDowell said anyone can call or email CPED to find out if a review is necessary for a specific area.
If evidence of pocket gophers is found during the first visit, a second isn’t required. But if no evidence is found, a follow-up visit is required at least 30 days later. That last visit needs to happen before this year’s review season ends Oct. 31 — hence this week’s deadline. The next review season, when the gophers are active, opens June 1, 2020.
McDowell said the charge for the county to conduct the reviews is based on lot size: $585 in addition to the cost of a project application for lots 5 acres or less; $1,170 for lots over 5 acres.
The Olympian reached out to several listed consultants via email for comparison, but only one responded by the time this article was published. Charges for consultant John Baldridge, who responded and posts his rates online, are $350 for a first visit for sites up to 5 acres and $50 per additional acre. A follow-up visit from him costs a bit less than the first.
“A client who hires me for two surveys can thus expect to pay a total of $650 for up to 5 acres,” Baldridge wrote in an email to The Olympian.
If a review finds the critters are present, applicants can modify their building plans to “avoid mitigation requirements,” according to the county’s website. Or they can work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a mitigation plan to stay within federal law.
The county is working on a 30-year mitigation plan that would “cover most permit applicants” and “eliminate the gopher review requirement” — in other words, it would streamline the process by setting aside some habitat for the critters.
Christina Chaput, Senior Planner with CPED, told The Olympian the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service responded this July to a draft plan the county submitted a year prior. Now, she said county technical staff is working with the federal agency to address questions and “be sure the document meets the technical and legal standards of the Endangered Species Act.”
At this point, she said, there is not a clear deadline for the final draft.
Mazama pocket gophers are also part of a status review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that began in June 2019.
Jeff Chan, fish biologist with the federal agency’s Washington office, told The Olympian these reviews are required every 5 years under the Endangered Species Act. The agency collects new information and will evaluate whether a species’ status should change.
In the pocket gopher subspecies’ case, the agency will include a recommendation in its review for whether the subspecies should remain listed as threatened, be “uplisted” to endangered, or be “delisted” completely.
Chan told The Olympian there’s no specific deadline for the 5-year review and the timeline varies by species, but the agency generally aims to get them done within a year. Once the recommendation is published, rule-making would be necessary to actually change the species’ status. The rule-making process includes public review and comment, according to a fact sheet from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Anyone wishing to submit new, relevant information on the Mazama pocket gopher since the last 5-year review was encouraged to submit it ahead of Aug. 12, according to a notice posted on the Federal Register. However, the notice states the agency will continue to accept new information on the species “at any time.”
The types of information the agency is requesting include population trends, implemented conservation measures, threat status, and new data on the species. The notice directs people to send information via mail to “Field Supervisor, Attention: 5-Year Review, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington Fish and Wildlife Office, 510 Desmond Dr. Southeast, Suite 102, Lacey, WA 98503.”