By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- Federal and state wildlife agencies have proposed listing the Mazama pocket gopher -- recognized in state law as a pest -- as a threatened species.
The gopher is endemic to Western Washington, Western Oregon and Northern California. Gopher populations used to be widespread on south Puget Sound prairies, including Thurston County, where its habitat and farmland are both under development pressure.
In its draft recovery plan, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says the gophers "play an important role in ecological communities by altering soil structure and chemistry, affecting plant occurrences and serving as prey for many predators, and their burrows provide a retreat for a wide variety of other species."
Derek Stinson, the biologist in wildlife diversity who wrote the January 2013 draft, called gophers "a keystone species for the role they play."
However, James Goché, who farms near Olympia and is a Thurston County Farm Bureau board member said that state law acknowledges that pocket gophers destroy crops and farmland and weaken dams and levees.
The Revised Code of Washington 17.12.010 specifically authorizes county commissioners to create a pest district "for the purpose of destroying or exterminating squirrels, prairie dogs, gophers, moles of other rodents ... that destroy or interfere with the crops, fruit trees, shrubs, valuable plants, fodder seeds or other agricultural plants or products."
Goché said county and state officials have visited farms in Thurston County and have seen how pocket gophers damage farmland and crops, how gopher burrows threaten livestock and how the burrowing destroys waterlines and utilities necessary to operate a farm.
"Staff ... doesn't seem to understand that the law considers farming and food protection to be a fundamental public policy interest which must be preserved and that the gopher is a pest which threatens this interest," he said.
Stinson defended the proposed listing, saying, "Part of our mandate is to serve native wildlife. It's not as easy a sell as, say, a bald eagle or a wolverine. They're kind of charismatic."
"But," Goché said, those species "don't compete with farmers for the soil."
The big question, Goché said, is "with 40 or 50 years experience of dealing with the (Endangered Species Act) laws, how do we create a balance to protect endangered species and our interest in farms, agriculture and crops?"
Stinson said he got many responses during public hearings about the listing and will include them in an appendix to the final plan. No date has been set for the plan's release, but it will probably be by the end of the summer.
One comment noted the lack of a numerical target in recovery objectives. Stinson acknowledged the difficulty in getting accurate estimates "because the gopher is underground 99 percent of the time."