Feds Propose New Endangered Species Listing in Northwest

Dec 11, 2012

The Northwest may have another species listed as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service yesterday (Monday) proposed listing the Mazama pocket gopher as threatened in the South Puget Sound region of western Washington. This is the third time this fall the government has moved to protect a critter that depends on dwindling Northwest prairies or coastal grasslands. Correspondent Tom Banse reports from Olympia.

The Mazama pocket gopher.
Credit Photo by Tom Banse / Northwest News Network

The pocket gopher gets its name from its cheek pouches, used to collect food. You're unlikely to see the little furry, tunnel diggers since they rarely show themselves in daylight. You have a much better chance of stumbling over the dirt mounds they leave behind on open fields and meadows in western Washington and Oregon's Willamette Valley. It is terrain the Mazama pocket gopher often shares with a dwindling songbird and a rare butterfly. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service state manager Ken Berg says development and habitat loss imperil all three prairie dependent species.

Berg: "The streaked horned lark, the Taylor's checkerspot butterfly and Mazama pocket gopher are bellwethers for the health of the Puget Sound prairie ecosystem. These proposals to list them under the federal Endangered Species Act indicate the Puget Sound prairies are not healthy and they need more protection and more restoration."

The lark is tentatively listed across its entire range in Washington and Oregon, as is the butterfly. But the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes federal protection for the pocket gopher only in Pierce and Thurston counties in Washington. That's because only those gopher populations may be in danger of extinction "in the foreseeable future," according to the government.

Berg says the consequences for landowners and the economy should be limited.

Berg: "It's one of the more manageable endangered species stories in the country because prairies are easily restored, relative to other habitat types."

But some affected groups hope to stop the gopher listing in particular before it can take effect. The Port of Olympia and the non-profit Freedom Foundation among others say they'll present evidence that endangered status is unjustified. Thurston County Chamber of Commerce President David Schaffert worries most about new federal oversight over land development.

Schaffert: "Take a look at the Mazama pocket gopher... Its distribution in a densely populated area of Thurston County could significantly reduce the opportunities for economic development, job creation."

Scientists say less than 10 percent of the historic prairies of Western Oregon and Washington survive today. And that's the native habitat for the pocket gopher, Taylor's checkerspot butterfly and streaked horned lark. The remaining strongholds for them include some unusual places. The military's Joint Base Lewis McChord for one. A bunch of regional airports for another... including at Corvallis, Eugene, Salem, Portland and Olympia. Former field biologist Noah Greenwald says grass fires sparked by artillery and mowing at the airports actually help to maintain prairie-like conditions. Greenwald works for the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland.

Greenwald: "What’s interesting about the prairies is that they were disturbance-adapted habitats. So there were fires that would regularly burn through and clear off trees. They kind of need disturbance to maintain themselves."

Greenwald's outfit was among the environmental groups that petitioned to add the three Puget Sound and Willamette prairie species to the endangered list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to finalize it protection plans in about a year.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio