WASHINGTON (CN) - Four subspecies of pocket gophers in Washington state may be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed four subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers-the Olympia, Tenino, Yelm, and Roy Prairie-as threatened, and proposed 9,234 acres of critical habitat in western Washington for their survival.
Another subspecies, the Tacoma, is already extinct, and four other candidates do not warrant listing, Fish & Wildlife said.
The proposal is part of a 2011 settlement agreement between the agency and the Center for Biological Diversity to speed listing decisions for hundreds of candidate species.
Fish & Wildlife evaluated the Mazama subspecies in 2001 and put them on the candidate list. The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the agency to list the gophers in 2002.
"It's a tragedy that the Tacoma pocket gopher went extinct waiting for protection. Endangered Species Act protection will give the other subspecies a fighting chance and will also help protect their habitat - some of our few remaining prairie grasslands," Center for Biological Diversity biologist Tierra Curry said in a statement.
The Mazama subspecies depends on a prairie ecosystem that has been reduced by 90 to 95 percent over the past 150 years in Washington. Less than 10 percent of the native prairie remains in the south Puget Sound region.
The gophers face loss of prairie habitat due to agriculture, commercial and residential development and woody plant encroachment from causes such as lack of periodic fire suppression. Domestic pets also prey on the gophers, especially in areas of degraded habitat.
Pocket gophers, named for external fur-lined cheek pouches they use to carry plant material, "are active in soil aeration, seed bed activation, soil fertilization, and generation of plant regrowth. Their burrows provide shelter for a wide variety of other species, and also serve as prey to hawks and owls, snakes, coyotes, foxes, badgers and bobcats," Fish & Wildlife.
The proposed critical habitat in Pierce and Thurston counties includes federal, state, municipal and private lands.
Fish & Wildlife is considering whether to exempt maintenance activities and agricultural practices on private lands where Mazama pocket gophers occur from the Endangered Species Act "take" prohibition, to increase conservation and provide an incentive for management that benefits the gophers and their habitats.
"Take" includes harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing or collecting.
Fish & Wildlife will accept comments until Feb. 11, 2013. Written public hearing requests are due by Jan. 25, 2013.
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