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Gopher’s ‘endangered’ status irks property rights leaders

by Jeff Rhodes | The Olympian

Posted 6/2/2014

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized Endangered Species Act protection on Wednesday for four subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers and designated 1,607 acres of protected critical habitat in Washington’s Thurston County, including at the Olympia Airport.

The decision was part of a landmark settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity requiring the agency to speed protection decisions for 757 species across the country.

It also included a “special rule” exempting airport, agricultural and other activities from the prohibitions of the Endangered Species Act — a tactic Fish and Wildlife is increasingly using to avoid inconveniencing industries and landowners with endangered species on their land.

“With this decision, the unique Mazama pocket gopher and its Puget prairie home have a fighting chance,” said Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director. “It’s deeply disappointing, though, to have activities that clearly destroy these pocket gophers’ homes — 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.”

Mazama pocket gophers are stocky rodents, up to 11 inches in length, with short necks and powerful limbs. They are reddish-brown with a black nose and lips and black patches behind the ears and get their name from pockets in their cheeks that are used to carry vegetation into their burrows.

Pocket gophers serve an important role aerating soils and stimulating plant growth, thereby helping to maintain species richness and diversity in native prairies. They currently are found on a few scattered remnant Puget prairies in Thurston and Pierce counties.

There were once nine subspecies of Mazama pocket gopher, first identified as needing protection in 1985. Since then two subspecies, the Tacoma and Cathlamet pocket gophers, have been declared extinct.pocket gopher

The four subspecies protected today include the Olympia, Roy Prairie, Tenino and Yelm pocket gophers, all of which are said to be threatened by urban and agricultural sprawl that plows under their prairie habitats, as well as invasion of prairies by trees that thrive in the absence of regular fire.

Three other subspecies were determined not to need protection.
“Saving the Mazama pocket gopher means saving the last little bits of beautiful Puget prairie we have left,” said Greenwald. “That’s something that benefits us all.”

That opinion wasn’t universally shared.

“Pocket gophers aren’t endangered and never were,” said Scott Roberts, Citizen Action Network director for the Freedom Foundation, a Thurston County-based free market think tank. “They’re literally everywhere. They abound in numbers and they live in a variety of habitats. You couldn’t reduce their numbers if you tried.”

Glen Morgan, the Freedom Foundation’s property rights director, said the pocket gopher is simply a pawn, like the spotted owl in the 1980s, being used by radical environmentalists to stifle all development in the name of a species that doesn’t need any help.

“The pocket gopher is an excuse, a lightning rod,” he said. “It”s an easy way for the county and state wildlife to set aside tracts of private property as no-touch zones. You can’t irrigate, you can’t fertilize, you can’t disturb the soil, you can’t even put your dogs and cats out.”

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