Government claims about pocket gopher protection remain flawed

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Melissa GensonSixth in a series on a new ESA list­ing. We will pub­lish addi­tions to the series if/as they are writ­ten.

washington-forest-dnr-630x286A 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 him?  The forests and moun­tains are beau­ti­ful.

Except there’s one prob­lem: he’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 his tastes aren’t suited—and he 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 species that prey on 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 of 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.

Mt. Rainier’s Carbon River Rain Forest — and Mazama Pocket Gopher habitat, according to Verts-Carraway study. Photo from National Park Service

Mt. Rainier’s Car­bon Riv­er Rain For­est — and Maza­ma Pock­et Gopher habi­tat, accord­ing to Verts-Car­raway study. Pho­to from Nation­al Park Ser­vice

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