The Mazama pocket gopher is officially “threatened” in Thurston and Pierce counties. After many years of debate, environmental studies, and litigation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) finally announced the listing of four subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), as well as the designation of more than 1,600 acres in Thurston County as critical habitat for the gophers. The agency’s listing and critical habitat decisions could have a significant effect on landowners in Pierce and Thurston counties, subjecting them to potential permitting requirements and restrictions on their ability to develop and use their land.
The decisions are the result of a settlement between USFWS and the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, a national conservation organization dedicated to protecting endangered species that had sued the agency to accelerate ESA decisions for 757 species across the country. And the USFWS’s decisions are likely to be challenged again, including challenges by landowners and businesses as well as challenges by environmental groups. The National Association of Homebuilders recently sued the USFWS over the process it was using to evaluate the ESA status of the pocket gopher, and on March 31, 2014, that lawsuit was dismissed. The Center for Biological Diversity, while generally supportive of the listing and critical habitat decisions, expressed disappointment over the agency’s exemption for “activities that clearly destroy these pocket gophers’ homes – like plowing.”
While the outcome of potential litigation over these decisions is hard to predict, it is clear that the pocket gopher will continue to be a major issue for landowners, businesses, and local governments in the South Sound for the foreseeable future.