A small critter is causing big problems in the South Puget Sound. It's called the Mazama pocket gopher.
Some 100,000 pocket gophers inhabit prairie lands throughout northern California, Oregon and Washington. Our state is the northernmost part of its range, where separate populations are scattered in pockets throughout the area, including Thurston and Pierce counties.
Last December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) proposed to list several subspecies of the Mazama pocket gopher in Washington as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Why should we care? Because this listing will come at a very high price -- a price we will all pay.
Populations of pocket gophers have been found near the Olympia airport, the Port of Olympia and Joint Base Lewis-McChord. A federal listing could result in federal review of virtually every proposed project in Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater and the surrounding area.
An ESA listing will bring strict limits on development and restrictions on how properties can be used. It doesn't matter if you're already operating a business, or you're in the middle of constructing a housing development or you're running a farm -- protecting the pocket gophers' habitat will take precedence.
The unique issue here is that a significant portion of the pocket gopher's territory is within the Urban Growth Boundary created under the state's Growth Management Act. This land, designated for development and growth, will be severely restricted if the listing becomes final.
What will those restrictions be? No one knows at this point. How much will mitigation requirements cost if your land is targeted? There's no way to know.
The impact is already being felt.
Property owners are seeing their land values plummet virtually overnight, and some have lost sale contracts or investors, scared off by the proposed listing. The main problem is uncertainty. Would you purchase or develop a piece of property if there was a chance you couldn't use it?
The ESA listing process for the pocket gopher is on a fast-track because of an agreement USFWS made to settle a lawsuit filed by the WildEarth Guardians, an environmental group headquartered in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Critics say that, as a result, the government is moving too fast to collect and consider the scientific information it needs to make an informed decision.
The U.S. Geological Survey is in the middle of a study that could determine whether the gophers genetically qualify for protection as separate subspecies. The study won't be completed until March, but the USFWS has indicated it cannot wait because of the lawsuit. After repeated protests, the agency announced a delay of up to six months to make its final determination, but at that point it will proceed with or without the USGS results.
The Thurston County Chamber of Commerce, along with public and private groups, opposes the ESA listing for the pocket gopher, saying it is not supported by science, that existing regulations already provide adequate protection, and there is already enough protected land to preserve the gopher without federal intervention. They point to $12.6 million in federal funds provided to Joint Based Lewis-McChord to purchase and conserve 2,600 acres of prairie habitat around the base to benefit the pocket gopher.
Fish and Wildlife has extended its window for public comments until Oct. 18. Concerned citizens should weigh in with their comments and contact their U.S. senator and congressional representatives. Tell them not to let the USFWS trample the people of Washington in its rush to list the pocket gopher under the ESA.