Gophers play an important role in plant, animal world

The unique south Puget Sound prairies are one of the nation’s rarest ecosystems. So it was a huge step in the right direction last week when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Endangered Species Act protection for four subspecies of the Mazama pocket gopher that depend on these prairies and are struggling mightily to claw out an existence.

With more than 90 percent of the South Sound’s wild prairies already lost to urban and residential development, some of the best remaining stretches of prairie habitat are in unexpected places such as the Olympia Regional Airport and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where they have some degree of protection from development. Many other areas, however, will only continue to support native prairies if they have federal protection.

It’s already too late for one subspecies of the Mazama pocket gopher. The USFWS also announced this week that the Tacoma pocket gopher is the latest U.S. species to be declared extinct. For decades this gopher’s habitat was eaten away by unbridled suburban and agricultural sprawl; finally it disappeared from the planet before any steps were taken to protect it.

The extinction, like the loss of any species, carries broad implications for the world these animals once inhabited. They made that world more livable for a wide variety of plants and animals, by aerating and fertilizing soils and by digging networks of tunnels that offer a natural refuge for a variety of other imperiled species, from salamanders and toads to reptiles and squirrels.

Like every other plant and animal on Earth, pocket gophers – named for the fur-lined cheek pouches they use for carrying nest-building vegetation and food into their subterranean worlds – play a unique, multifaceted role in keeping their ecosystems diverse and healthy. A single pocket gopher can move a ton of soil to the surface every year while digging intricate tunnel systems, complete with separate areas for nesting, food storage and waste.

In this way the natural activities of pocket gophers play a key role in maintaining the richness and diversity of prairie species. While their daily digging helps to activate seed banks and stimulate plant growth, pocket gophers also serve as food for weasels, snakes, badgers, foxes, skunks, bobcats, coyotes, great horned owls, barn owls and hawks.

For all those reasons, the Fish and Wildlife Service has wisely proposed setting aside more than 9,000 acres of “critical habitat” for the four subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers that need federal protection to survive.

The proposal to protect these rare and ecologically important animals gives them a fighting chance at fending off extinction. But the loss of the Tacoma pocket gopher is a stark reminder that delaying protection for species has tragic consequences and is not an option if we truly want to preserve the wildlife that makes up our natural heritage.

Here on the verge of the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, the evidence is conclusive: It is a powerful, effective tool for saving species, preventing the extinction of 99 percent of plants and animals placed under its care since 1973. As will be the case with these four subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers, the act helps protect not only individual species but whole ecosystems.

Noah Greenwald, a graduate of The Evergreen State College, is a biologist and endangered species director in the Portland, Ore., office of the Center for Biological Diversity. Email him at ngreenwald@biologicaldiversity.org.