Small critter, big issue

December 13, 2012 

The pesky Mazama pocket gopher is raising its little head again, and citizens concerned about its potential listing under the federal Endangered Species Act – for or against – have until Feb. 11 to make their voices heard. Expect them to be loud.

The Lacey office of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officially “proposed to list” the gopher this week, kicking off a 12-month period to consider if listing the critter as a threatened species is warranted. But the public comment lasts only 62 days.

Washingtonians know well the kind of emotional debate that surrounds an ESA listing. The controversial spotted owl listing in the 1990s led to the so-called “timber wars” and some ugly rhetoric from all sides of the issue.

Serious concerns are being raised about the economic impact on Thurston County, because the prairie habitat it prefers covers nearly 10,000 acres. A listing might arrest development in large portions of the county.

But several other events are also occurring. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife will soon release its long-awaited gopher status update and recovery plan, which will provide valuable information gleaned from surveys of gopher populations conducted last summer.

If the state has found sufficient physical evidence that gophers are thriving in a variety of habitats, it could convince the USFWS to stop the listing process. That’s a best scenario outcome for everyone, including the gophers.

Meanwhile, Thurston County is using federal funds to develop a Habitat Conservation Plan, which would provide some measure of development certainty to property owners if the gopher does get listed.

It’s critical right now for Thurston County interests to provide the USFWS with as much objective information as possible.

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