Politics & Government

Federal cuts create backlog of Thurston County gopher reviews

The Mazama pocket gopher continues to dig up drama in Thurston County.

The latest in the continuing saga of the furry critter that was listed about two years ago as threatened under the Endangered Species Act: A whole lot of finger-pointing between Thurston County and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over some cutbacks that could cause more delays for property owners.

County officials say U.S. Fish and Wildlife recently informed them that the agency’s biologists will be able to survey property for gophers with county biologists only three days a week, instead of four, like last year.

Thurston County Commissioner Bud Blake, who has been critical of the federal listing and its impact on property owners, said the scheduling decision came as a surprise and at a time when the county is seeing a significant increase in land-use permit applications.

“That’s crazy talk to me,” he said. “… This is just another burden on the system, the people, the whole process.”

About 10 percent of the county’s permit applications require gopher screenings, which are done between June 1 and Oct. 31, when gophers are most active.

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 to look at soils, vegetation and other physical characteristics of the land, checking for signs of protected species, according to the county’s website.

Gophers are not found on 90 percent of reviewed sites, according to county officials.

If gophers are discovered on a property, the owner is now required to do a critical area report, according to senior planner Cindy Wilson. That’s a change from last year’s policy, which directed property owners to either work directly with the federal government to mitigate for loss of gopher habitat, or wait for completion of the county’s Habitat Conservation Plan before moving forward with the permitting process and developing their land.

But details about what happens after the critical area reports are received by the county are still be ironed out.

“We don’t have anybody to review those reports,” Wilson said. “And we don’t know if those will meet U.S. Fish and Wildlife requirements.”

In 2015, the county screened 286 properties during the five-month review season.

“Early county estimates indicate that there are about 400 permit applications currently waiting for gopher review,” stated a news release the county issued Tuesday. “That’s roughly 100 more than the county received by this time last year, with more coming in daily.”

The county expects to complete “about as many” properties as last year, the news release stated.

To help keep up with the increased demand, county staff are looking at ways they can review projects in-house that have “limited risk” of gophers, Wilson said.

“But we can only do that so much,” she said. “We’re doing the best we can.”

Taylor Goforth, an information and education specialist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency is supporting Thurston County in many efforts, including with gopher reviews and with its Habitat Conservation Plan.

County officials say the HCP will clarify where development can occur and how damage to habitat can be mitigated; it’s also expected to speed up the permitting process.

“We can do three days,” Goforth said about the reviews. “We have maxed out both funding and staff on the screening and the completion of the HCP. We are giving it our all and continue to encourage the county on completing the HCP. … The screening won’t even be necessary when the HCP is complete.”

Thurston County Commissioner Sandra Romero said she thinks Goforth has a valid point about the amount of resources Fish and Wildlife is throwing at the county.

“We are really needy right now because of the impact of the listing,” she said.

Blake said his understanding is that county staff is waiting for guidance from Fish and Wildlife on some HCP issues. Romero said there are a lot of partners involved in creating the county’s HCP, including Joint Base Lewis-McChord and groups that are involved in helping secure grant funding for acreage that could be preserved for gopher habitat.

“It’s hard to say for people to be patient because we know it’s very frustrating to them,” Romero said. “But we are working as fast and at a pace that is defensible. …We want to make sure we get it right.”

Troy Nichols, executive officer with Olympia Master Builders, believes the tussle between the county and the feds is only going to make things worse for landowners and builders.

“By their own admission … there’s already this huge backlog,” he said. “If you start now (with the permitting process), it’s going to be two years before you can even put a shovel in the ground.”

Olympia Master Builders is one of three groups that filed a lawsuit in Lewis County Superior Court asking for an injunction against Thurston County’s interim permitting processes governing land use in areas believed to be habitat for gophers.

The groups also filed a complaint about the county’s four-step review process with the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. In May, the hearings board ruled that a portion of the county’s permitting process was out of compliance with the Growth Management Act.

Nichols said the county isn’t legally required to have a U.S. Fish and Wildlife official accompany its staff on gopher reviews. In fact, before the listing was adopted, the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance allowed property owners to hire private companies to conduct gopher reviews.

“They added all of these things on top of the permitting process, once the listing happened,” Nichols said.

He said some of the gopher red tape could end after the November election, when Romero and Thurston County Commissioner Cathy Wolfe retire. The two longtime county commissioners, and former commissioner Karen Valenzuela, pushed for the gopher listing to protect prairie habitat, he said.

“At the end of the day, it’s not about the gopher, it’s about no development,” Nichols said.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton