Saving endangered pocket gophers in Thurston County presents challenges

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OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Mounds at the Olympia Regional Airport represent a problem in Thurston County.

They are signs of the Mazama Pocket Gopher, and three of the four local subspecies are found in Thurston County. In 2014, they were listed as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

While the community continues to grow in Tumwater, the pocket gophers have created extra hurdles for land development, requiring developers to obtain special inspections in some parts of the county. Curtis Wambach, with Envirovector, specializes in those inspections and says the process is time-consuming and pricey.

“The price varies, but a lot of folks may be priced out of the screenings because two screens typically can cost up to $2,000 a screening, depending on the size of the property and work involved,” Wamback told Q13 News. “The regulations effect single families disproportionately, and it doesn’t allow them to develop land. Once a pocket gopher is identified on your property, it’s hard to sell it and devalues the property.”

The Port of Olympia and City of Tumwater are working with federal wildlife officials to put together a future habitat conservation plan, a way to protect the gophers while making sure the community can still grow.

The two municipalities have been working on this project for two years. The 30-year plan is expected to be complete by 2020. Rachel Jamison, the public works and environmental director at the Port of Olympia, says this is about marrying the needs of people and animals.

“A habitat conservation plan is exactly what it sounds like. How do we conserve enough habitat so the species has what it needs to thrive while we accommodate for a growing population?” said Jamison.

And Tumwater is growing fast, along with Thurston County. Michael Matlock, the community development director for the city of Tumwater, says building permits in 2018 hit record levels, but protecting the endangered gophers is still a priority.

“It’s been a challenge and a big opportunity as well,” said Matlock. “There is a way to deal with this in a proactive manner, that’s good for the gopher and good for the community because Tumwater is a fast-growing community.”

Right now, officials are asking for the public’s input on the project. They say it’s more robust than what the federal government requires, so officials are working to get as much public feedback as possible.

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