Landowners’ denial of gopher data risks additional restrictions

Everyone in Thurston County will benefit if farmers and small landowners take advantage of the 45-day reopening of the public comment period on the possibility of listing the Mazama pocket gopher under the Federal Endangered Species Act. A failure to cooperate now with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based on a misplaced distrust of government, will result in greater, not fewer, land use restrictions.

By delaying its decision whether to list the gopher by six months, the USFWS hopes to gather information from private landowners that could favorably affect a special rule governing allowable activities, or perhaps convince the agency that no listing is warranted.

The county, the Port of Olympia and Joint Base Lewis-McChord have assisted the USFWS in seeking reliable current data on gopher populations in the South Sound, raising enough questions about a need to list four subspecies of the animal to prompt the delay and new comment period.

But private landowners have not been so forthcoming. The USFWS says farmers, in particular, have been reluctant to allow the agency on their land to observe how gophers are affected, positively or negatively, by each landowner’s unique activities.

Denying access is a no-win game for the landowners. Withholding information virtually guarantees a formal listing and tighter land use restrictions within the critical habitat area.

However, if landowners allow the USFWS on their properties, agency field reps can determine whether the property is home to gophers or just moles. If they are gophers, the USFWS can learn how the animals are coexisting with the farm’s operations and write a rule that doesn’t impair land use.

USFWS experts need to see gophers thriving alongside farming activities. That information could provide the agency with a reason to abandon the listing process or, at least, to remove a specific parcel land from the critical habitat area. It also could permit verified nondetrimental activities via the special rule that will accompany the final listing.

Absent that information, however, the USFWS must err on the side of stricter conversation measures.

Some fiercely independent landowners have refused to deal with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They’re wrong to do so. If the gopher is listed, there will be restrictions on land use, and those who did not share relevant information will have missed a golden opportunity to impact the process.

Farmers and private landowners should invite the USFWS to gather on-site information during the next 45 days. That simple act has the potential to minimize restrictions — possibly erasing the need for a gopher listing — and lessen the economic impact on the entire county.