Struggles Over Species Conservation
a Mountain Out of a Gopher Hill
By Hildi Flores
There's no doubt that the Mazama Pocket Gopher has been the source of some hubbub in Thurston County, particularly with regard to the proposal to list the prairie critter under the federal Endangered Species Act and the county's measures to impose land use restrictions on individuals' property if gophers are found. Although the community has been polarized around the stipulations in the county's Critical Areas Ordinance, the desire to conserve critical prairie habitat and its dependent species is a value that runs across the spectrum.
The issue over pocket gophers takes place within the larger context of Thurston County attempting to update its Critical Areas Ordinance as required by the state's Growth Management Act. The GMA requires the protection of environmentally sensitive areas: wetlands, flood zones and other geologically hazardous areas, as well as fish and wildlife habitat. According to Andrew Deffobis, an associate planner at Thurston County Planning Department, the department has received two grants from US Fish and Wildlife to develop a Habitat Conservation Plan which "lays out the projected impacts of a proposed action, determines what conservation measures are available, and builds in mechanisms to provide assurance that species conservation will be achieved."
In addition to the Mazama Pocket Gopher, other prairie species have been listed as either endangered or threatened by Washington Fish and Wildlife Service: the Streaked Horned Lark and Taylor's Checkerspot Butterfly. On the federal level, however, these three are only candidate species and have yet to be officially listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. In order to clarify some of the confusion over the county's decision to conserve species that have yet to be federally listed, the Planning Department explains the county's conservation initiative on its website. "Protecting these species at the county level may help to prevent a federal listing and all the additional rules that come with it."1
Several rural landowners, however, argue the county's stipulations are too cumbersome, and have coalesced to form the STOP Thurston County campaign. STOP, an acronym for "Stop Taking Our Property," implies the county is seizing private property, but actually refers to the often stringent limitations placed on parcels where gophers are found. Larry Weaver, a real estate broker in Rochester, says the ordinance has "unintended consequences" and the imposed land use restrictions become problematic when attempting to sell or develop property on prairie soil.
Weaver said a client of his considered purchasing an 11 acre home site with the intent of starting a home-based business, but "lost all interest in the property" when he discovered his development could potentially be restricted to 5000 sq. ft. if gophers were found. "The County says it only affects 1% of property owners, but I'm seeing 100% affected. Whenever somebody wants to sell, the buyer has to ask: can I use this property?"
According to the Planning Department, since 2007, only 25 project applications have required Habitat Management Plans, less than 1% of all applications received for projects on prairie soils.2 However, this figure does not speak to the general deterrent potential land-use restrictions are to buyers, before any applications are submitted, of which Weaver speaks.
A Habitat Management Plan for one of Weaver's clients required two acres to be set aside for every gopher found on the parcel. If calculations lead to the entire property being set aside, the county will allow up to 5000 sq. ft. of development. In an effort to be flexible, Thurston County has provided a "reasonable use exception" for which land owners can apply if they feel they have been left with no reasonable use of their property. Applying for the exception, however, may be burdensome as well.
"The one time we had actually pursued this process, it became an economic nightmare," said Weaver. "After investing over $16,000 and two years in the effort, my client ran out of funds and gave up. That experience convinced us of the burden this places on private property."
Glen Morgan of the Freedom Foundation, the parent organization of STOP Thurston County, said, "the Critical Areas Ordinance, as it has been written in Thurston County, will not help the environment. It does not solve the problems it claims to solve."
In reference to permit fees and other costs incurred while attempting to develop property, such as habitat and hydrologic studies, Morgan said the burden disproportionally falls on the less affluent. "Developers don't care. They can buy their way through. It's only the little guy that gets hurt by these ordinances."
With regard to species conservation, Morgan said "nobody gets rewarded for saving endangered species, and that's where I think our incentive system is flawed."
Weaver, despite all his struggles with the county, said "I'm a big conservationist, but I'm battling with the fact that property owners are penalized if species are found." He said incentives are a "win-win" and would allow the "environmental faction and property faction" to work with each other instead of fighting.
"If the goal in fact is to encourage a particular species to flourish," said Weaver, "it seems counter intuitive to penalize individuals who own land if the species are found on their property. If I could be given incentive rather than penalized, I would create an environment where species would flourish. Instead, with the economic terror people are faced with if gophers are found, it's a guarantee folks that anticipate developing their property will assure endangered species are not found."
Weaver said policies should be aimed at giving landowners incentives to protect endangered species, such as tax breaks or credits for building permits. The state does offer an Open Space Tax Program, but it requires a $1,285 application fee.3 Morgan, who also sits on the Thurston County Farm Bureau, said the bureau is considering "formally requesting permission from the various agencies involved to allow us to have some of our members who are capable raise these species and try to save them."
US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) ecologist Ted Thomas said that under the Endangered Species Act there is a permit process for handling endangered species which "allows people to continue what they've been doing right." He said he's cooperated with several private landowners to preserve critical prairie habitat. "We can provide benefit for a lot of species by conserving the ecosystem as a whole."
Pocket gophers are only one component of the effort to conserve critical prairie habitat in the Southern Puget Sound. According to USFWS officials, prairies are threatened by several factors, both natural and man-made. Conversion of agricultural land and commercial development are as much a threat to the fragile ecosystem as invasive species and forest encroachment.
Thomas and USFWS Division Manager Jodi Bush presented the ecological challenges of prairie conservation to an audience at a meeting of the Science Café in Olympia on January 8. Thomas said the key to maintaining the species' critical habitat is managing the prairies through mowing, prescribed burns, tree removal, and planting native forbs and grasses.
"The trees that most of us see as the dominant vegetation in western Washington and Oregon for the longest time were kept at bay from the prairies because we had a lot of cultural burning," said Thomas. "But about a hundred and fifty years ago Europeans came on the scene and fire wasn't a good idea. As we started to control fires we actually began to lose our prairies."
This point led a few members of the audience to ask some form of the next logical question: if prairies were maintained through cultural burnings by Native Americans, wouldn't it be natural to allow forest encroachment to occur? Since these prairie species are so specialized, wouldn't their extinction without human intervention be a process of nature?
In response, Bush said "under the act, our responsibility is to consider the species as it is today, whether it chose the wrong habitat to make its home or not. We are faced with what we know today, and what is likely to happen because of threats, and that's how we do our analysis."
The presentation only focused on two proposed candidate species, the butterfly and the lark. Bush said the list initially consisted of four species, the additions being the Mazama Pocket Gopher and Mardon Skipper. She said they "determined the skipper was not warranted for listing" and "due to some complexity, we ended up pulling pocket gopher out." Bush did not detail the complexities, but said the gopher is being studied separately.
A possible complexity with the pocket gopher could be federal agencies' extensive history of treating pocket gophers as pests that warrant use of rodenticide. A 1976 report by a US Forest Service official entitled "Increasing Pocket Gopher Problems in Reforestation" said "concern over pocket gopher damage to conifer seedlings is increasing rapidly in the northwestern United States...the northern pocket gopher and the mazama pocket gopher are the most widely distributed species in the region...and are the species identified most often in areas where the greatest amount of damage occurs to conifer plantations."4
A 1992 report by the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service officials said "Pocket gophers continue to be a problem on National Forests and state and private lands, causing reforestation losses on hundreds of thousands of acres. Few control materials or methods for controlling forest pocket gopher damage are available. Reductions in pocket gopher abundance can be achieved for short time periods in some areas with strychnine grain bait. Repeated treatments may be required within one year because of rapid reinvasion of burrow systems."5
The extent to which the Mazama Pocket Gopher was treated as a pest in Thurston County and how and if it relates to its declined population has yet to be determined.
The state Fish and Wildlife department has recently published the mazama pocket gopher's status update and recovery plan, which is available online.6 Over the next several months, public hearings and informational workshops will be held as USFWS considers its official listing.
The history and policies surrounding pocket gopher protection are complex and there are discrepancies in how this actually affects property owners. A deeper understanding of the species' ecology as well as property owners' first-hand experience dealing with the Critical Areas Ordinance can assist all parties involved in devising an approach that is more comprehensive and effective in conserving the prairie habitat and its dependent species. The quality of results will depend on robust public involvement and a diversity of people bringing their knowledge and experience to the table.