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Saturday, December 9, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, December 9, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Four Pocket Gopher Types Get Listing Protection

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced that four sub-species of the Mazama pocket gopher have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency has also designated over 1,600 acres of critical habitat for the four Washington state gophers, and created a special rule that allows continued agricultural activities on farming and ranching lands.

Noting that "years of close collaboration with local landowners, state biologists, federal agencies and other partners to implement significant conservation measures," resulted in "a path forward in the protection of four subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers," the agency also touted the new regulations and special rule as "an innovative, efficient use of taxpayer resources," according to its press release.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that engineered a 2011 settlement with the USFWS to speed listing decisions for the gophers and hundreds of other species over a five year period, voiced a different perspective.

"With this decision the unique Mazama pocket gopher and its Puget prairie home have a fighting chance," CBD endangered species director Noah Greenwald was quoted as saying in the group's press release, "It's deeply disappointing, though, to have activities that clearly destroy these pocket gophers' home, like plowing, categorically exempted so they can go on as usual. There is a way to balance the need to allow activities that benefit the gopher, such as mowing of airport fields, without exempting harmful activities from regulation. This decision fails to find that balance." (Emphasis is in original).

The CBD originally petitioned the USFWS to list eight gopher subspecies in 2002, according to the 2012 proposed regulation. A ninth subspecies had already become extinct. Listing for four of the eight subspecies was determined to be "not warranted," according to the proposed action, which also included a proposal for over 9,000 acres of critical habitat for the Olympia, Tenino, Yelm and Roy Prairie pocket gophers, the subjects of the current regulation.

The special rule under the Endangered Species Act exempts harm to the gophers for general activities on agricultural and ranching lands, regular maintenance activities on civilian airports, control of noxious weeds and invasive plants, maintenance of roadside rights-of way, and limited activities on private parcels, the action said.

The gophers are threatened by encroachment from native and non-native woody plants caused in part by fire suppression that has allowed trees and shrubs to grow in the predominantly treeless prairies. In addition, the gophers face habitat loss due to development, predation by feral and domestic cats and dogs, and impacts from military training at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord military base.

The four gopher subspecies are found only in Thurston and Pierce counties in Washington state. The threatened listing status signifies that they are likely to become endangered throughout all or a significant portion of their range in the foreseeable future, the agency said.

The 6,345 acres of critical habitat originally proposed in Pierce County is entirely on the military base. Because "the base has worked with the [USFWS] on a management plan that conserves the habitat of these gophers while still allowing military training operations to continue...the land on the base has been exempted," the agency said.

The pocket gopher gets its name from external fur-lined cheek pouches used to carry nesting material and food. Pocket gophers have an essential ecological role in aerating and enriching soils, activating the seed bank, and stimulating plant growth. Though they can be pests in agricultural areas, "gopher activity is important in maintaining species richness and diversity," the action noted.

Both the listing and critical habitat designation are effective May 9.

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