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Government claims about pocket gopher protection remain flawed

This is Part 6 of a series about a new ESA micro-listing, and its impact on a rural community.  Read Part 1Part 2, Part 3 here, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.

A new addition to the Endangered Species Act, the Mazama pocket gopher, is found to have popped up in the lush, rainy forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest.  And who can blame it?  The forests and mountains are beautiful.

Except there’s one problem: it’s not supposed to be there.

Officials claim that protected gophers need tall, dry grasses to survive.  This residential building lot's yard can't be watered or tended, because it's classified as "critical gopher habitat."  Photo by Steve Genson.

Officials claim that protected gophers need tall, dry grasses to survive. This residential building lot’s yard can’t be watered or tended, because it’s classified as “critical gopher habitat.” Photo by Steve Genson.

According to federal, Washington State, and county officials, the Mazama pocket gopher is a fragile, solitary creature that is extremely picky about his habitat and his conjugal duties.  They claim that the gopher won’t breed if its tastes aren’t suited—and it can’t abide heavy forests, wet soils, rocks, most vegetation, and just about anything that isn’t found in a few small patches of western Washington prairies.

It would serve to reason that it certainly couldn’t share the wet forest habitat of his fellow Northwest ESA-listed species, the northern spotted owl.

Officials further claim that four Mazama “subspecies” in south Thurston County, WA are so isolated and reluctant to breed that they are likely to become extinct.  The Rochester-area subspecies allegedly boasts a massive reproductive organ that apparently also needs government protection.

As a result of these claims, heavy land-use restrictions designed to preserve habitat for these allegedly picky rodents have stripped the value and usefulness from a lot of property in south Thurston County.  Residents have lost their homes and life savings because of these restrictions.

However, the pocket gopher’s escalation to federal protection reveals flaws in these powerful habitat claims.

Early Study Refutes Habitat Claims

Forest and mountain predator species that eat Mazama pocket gophers.  From page 5 of Verts/Carraway study

Forest and mountain species that prey on Mazama Pocket Gophers. From page 5 of Verts/Carraway study

In an Oregon State University study of the Mazama pocket gopher published by the American Society of Mammalogists in 2000, husband and wife biologists B. J. Verts and Leslie Carraway describe an unfussy creature that can live and breed in a wide variety of ecosystems, climates, and soil types.

Page 5 of this study describes various predators that feast on Mazama pocket gophers in forests, mountains, and the much harsher climate east of the Cascade Mountains, as shown at right.

According to this study, the Mazama pocket gopher is the second favorite snack of coyotes in the heavily forested Cascades.  These rodents are also prey for another ESA-listed northern spotted owl.

Federally protected Northern Spotted Owl.  Photo from the U.S. Forest Service

Federally protected Northern Spotted Owl. Photo from the U.S. Forest Service

Federal protection of the northern spotted owl is based on the government’s assertion that this owl can’t survive outside of a dense, old growth forest.

Ironically, federal protection of Thurston County’s Mazama pocket gophers is based on their assertion that these rodents can’t survive away from dry prairie soils.

No government officials have been able to explain how these two species, from opposite habitats, can somehow meet up for dinner.

Also a mystery is how the allegedly delicate and needy spotted owl can find these gophers, that are able to evade more robust predators—barn owls, great horned owls, and long eared owls.  Federal spotted owl protection is based on the assertion that these beleaguered owls can’t compete with other predators for food, except under the most pristine conditions.

State and Local Officials Ignore Proof about Gopher Habitat

WDFW instructs not to look for gopher mounds outside their "critical habitat."

WDFW instructs not to look for gopher mounds outside of their “critical habitat.”

Beginning in 2003, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) was the first government agency to push to protect Mazama pocket gopher prairie habitat.  Thurston County officials began imposing their own prairie restrictions for gopher habitat protection a few years later.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife added their own ESA listing in April 2014, which imposed even greater restrictions.

Each of these government actions was based on the assertion that there are distinct gopher subspecies that can’t survive away from carefully monitored prairies.  Each of these government actions also occurred after the publication of the 2000 Verts-Carraway study, which disproved their habitat claims.

None of these governments have provided any actual evidence of their various claims about these gopher subspecies and their habitat needs.  None have come up with evidence to refute the Verts-Carraway study.  They have instead suppressed scientific data that could disprove each of their claims.

No Plans for Evidence-based Testing

WDFW states that they have no plans to perform DNA tests that could either support or refute the existence of gopher “subspecies.”

Like the other agencies, they rely on observations supposedly recorded in 1942—years before DNA testing.  These observations were cataloged and assigned a number by the “Integrated Taxonomic Information System” (ITIS).  However, this catalog does not require genetic evidence.  It allows outside submission of “scientific biological names,” including historical references like the pocket gopher subspecies, without proof or expert evidence or sources.

Under “references” for the Rochester-area’s ESA-listed subspecies, ITIS shows no experts, notes, references, sources, or other relevant information that would lend credibility to this subspecies identification.  Those critical ITIS sections for this subspecies are completely blank.

Thurston County official Mike Kain's 8-14-13 email stating no gophers in heavy forests

Thurston County official Mike Kain’s 8-14-13 email stating no gophers in heavy forests

WDFW has also gone so far as to instruct field surveyors who are searching for gopher mounds not to look in heavy forests or wet areas, as shown at upper right.  Such evidence of gophers living outside of their “critical habitat” would further discredit that agency’s unproven claims.

In spite of evidence to the contrary, Thurston County official Mike Kain continues to enforce local land use restrictions based on his assertion that Mazama pocket gophers can’t live in heavy forests, as shown in the second paragraph of his Aug. 14, 2013 email at right.

Full-bellied mountain coyotes and spotted owls might beg to differ.

This is Part 6 of a series about a new ESA micro-listing, and its impact on a rural community. Read Part 1Part 2, Part 3 here, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.

Feature image from the Washington Department of Natural Resources, Northwest Region.

Melissa Genson

Melissa Genson, a resident of Washington State, is the regional editor for Watchdog Wire - Northwest. Contact her at Northwest@WatchdogWire.com.

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