State targets landowner's gopher battle

FILE - The Mazama pocket gopher.  (Curtis Wambach/PE Consultants)
FILE - The Mazama pocket gopher. (Curtis Wambach/PE Consultants)

ROCHESTER - A Rochester man is in hot water with authorities for setting traps on his undeveloped land to kill Mazama pocket gophers, a state-protected species, in an apparent attempt to make it easier to build on the property.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife forwarded the case Tuesday to the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, asking that Christopher G. Weaver, 28, of Rochester, be charged with unlawful use of body traps and unlawful taking of a protected species, which are misdemeanors.

“This is definitely a unique case,” Fish and Wildlife officer Carl Klein said. “I don’t know how many gophers were killed — Weaver claimed it was only two.”

Neither Weaver nor the deputy prosecutor reviewing the case could be reached for comment Wednesday.

In an affidavit filed with Thurston County District Court, Klein said he responded to the 5.45-acre parcel at 18005 Seco Lane S.W. on Feb. 25 after receiving an e-mail tip that day of a possible trapping violation.

The officer found on the property four set traps under buckets, including one dead pocket gopher in a trap.

The Mazama pocket gopher, a small burrowing rodent, is native to South Sound prairies and is a state threatened species and candidate for federal protection. Its numbers have declined dramatically in the past several decades because of habitat loss, trapping and predation by dogs and cats.

In most cases, developers who find gophers on their property are required to hire a biologist and develop a mitigation plan, which often includes setting aside property for the gophers. But the protection measures don’t lead to a ban on building, Thurston County senior planner Cindy Wilson said.

In his affidavit, Klein said he was told by a concerned citizen that the previous owner of the property had run into difficulty developing the property because of the presence of pocket gophers, and sold the property to Weaver at a considerable loss. The officer said the tipster heard Weaver state his intentions to kill all the gophers in order to obtain building permits.

According to Thurston County Assessor records, Weaver purchased the property from Alan and Kathy Stromseth for $60,000 on Dec. 9, 2009. The Stromseths bought the property for $110,000 in April of 2009.

Wilson said Stromseth applied for a permit to build a single family home on the property on Sept. 17, 2009. A county planner visited the property, found evidence of pocket gophers and told Stormseth to hire a biologist to determine the whereabouts of gophers on the property.

“We never did see the biologist’s final report,” Wilson said, noting that Stromseth withdrew his permit request in October 2009.

Thurston County District Court Judge Samuel Meyer signed a search warrant Friday, allowing Klein to seize evidence from the property. On Tuesday, Klein placed into evidence six body-gripping traps.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444