Outdated essays on pocket gophers reveal lack of evidence for ESA listing

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Melissa Gensongopherpenisdrawings-630x286Sev­enth in a series on a new ESA list­ing. We will pub­lish addi­tions to the series if/as they are written.

Unsup­port­ed claims in obscure essays from 1942, 1944, and 1960 have hurt a lot of peo­ple in south Thurston Coun­ty, Wash­ing­ton.  Oppres­sive laws are based on them—including the 2014 Endan­gered Species Act micro-list­ing of four Maza­ma pock­et gopher sub­species.  Some fam­i­lies have lost everything.

johnson-benson-snip-1-title-page-top-150x150A brief 1960 essay enti­tled  “Rela­tion­ship of the Pock­et Gophers of the Tho­momys Maza­ma-Talpoides Com­plex in the Pacif­ic North­west” (The Mur­relet, Vol. 41, No. 2, pages 17–22) is what fed­er­al, state, and local offi­cials still rely on to iden­ti­fy Thurston Coun­ty gophers as the Maza­ma species.   The top of this essay’s first page is shown at right.

This 1960 essay claims that the pock­et gophers liv­ing on the prairies around Thurston Coun­ty are not the same species as the sur­round­ing North­ern (talpoides) pock­et gophers—for an intrigu­ing reason.

Mazama Pocket Gopher.  Zoological Series, Vol.6

Maza­ma Pock­et Gopher.  Zoo­log­i­cal Series, Vol.6

The essay states that, because of the alleged large size of these south Thurston gophers’ penis­es, they are actu­al­ly mem­bers of the well-endowed Maza­ma species.  That species was first dis­cov­ered in 1897 in the moun­tains and forests around Crater Lake, OR and north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, as shown at right.

Crater Lake was formed by the mas­sive erup­tion of Mount Maza­ma—hence the gopher’s name.

The only evi­dence of this 1960 claim are the com­par­a­tive gopher penis draw­ings in the fea­ture image shown above, and at low­er right.

From 1960 – “The Murrelet”, Vol. 41, No. 2, page 20.

From 1960 – “The Mur­relet”, Vol. 41, No. 2, page 20.

There is no avail­able expla­na­tion as to how or why a small band of well-endowed for­est rodents would bur­row 350 miles across moun­tains, val­leys, and rivers, includ­ing the wide Colum­bia, to set­tle on Thurston Coun­ty prairies, which is a dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent habi­tat from their native moun­tain home.

Yet offi­cials at every lev­el of gov­ern­ment fierce­ly pro­tect the “Maza­ma” pock­et gopher “sub­species” of Thurston Coun­ty, based on their con­fi­dence in this 54-year-old sketch of gopher penis­es, shown at right.

Nei­ther Maza­ma or talpoides need a prairie habitat

Fed­er­al, state, and local offi­cials also rely on the 1944 essay, “Dis­tri­b­u­tion and Vari­a­tion in Pock­et Gophers, Tho­momys talpoides, in the State of Wash­ing­ton” (Amer­i­can Nat­u­ral­ist, Vol. 77, No.777, pages 308–333), for their sci­en­tif­ic cri­te­ria about pock­et gopher habi­tat.  They enforce strin­gent laws based on their asser­tion that pock­et gophers can’t live in forests.

1944 essay states that encroaching forests will cause extinction of gophers. “American Naturalist” Vol. 77, No. 777, pg. 314

1944 essay states that encroach­ing forests will cause extinc­tion of gophers. “Amer­i­can Nat­u­ral­ist” Vol. 77, No. 777, pg. 314

This 1944 essay states that Thurston County’s gophers can’t live in forests.  The essay went on to claim that these gophers were even doomed to extinc­tion because of forests encroach­ing on their prairie habi­tat, as shown at right.

This dire pre­dic­tion from 1944 is the basis of these gophers’ cur­rent “endan­gered” status.

Mul­ti­ple sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies have doc­u­ment­ed that both the Maza­ma and the “North­ern” (talpoides) pock­et gophers live and breed pro­lif­i­cal­ly in forests.  The North­ern pock­et gophers were one of the few old growth for­est ani­mals to sur­vive the erup­tion of Mount St. Helens.

So, whichev­er species Thurston County’s pock­et gophers turn out to be–either North­ern or Mazama–they sure don’t need prairie habi­tat to survive.

WDFW chal­lenges ‘sub­species’ criteria

From first page of 1942 essay identifying three new “talpoides” gopher subspecies.

From first page of 1942 essay iden­ti­fy­ing three new “talpoides” gopher subspecies.

Fed­er­al, state, and local laws pro­tect­ing Thurston County’s “Maza­ma” pock­et gophers are based on the asser­tion that dis­tinct sub­species were dis­cov­ered by a young muse­um employ­ee named Wal­ter Dalquest in 1942.

Here is the com­plete two and a half page essay from 1942, claim­ing to iden­ti­fy three new North­ern (talpoides) pock­et gopher sub­species in Thurston Coun­ty.  The essay is fol­lowed by a one page chart of gopher measurements:

1942 Essay – Three New Pock­et Gophers (Genus Tho­momys) from West­ern Washington

This 1942 essay states that phys­i­cal appearance–varying col­ors, sizes, and shapes–would iden­ti­fy a dis­tinct gopher subspecies.

From pg. 5 of 2013 Draft WDFW Mazama Pocket Gopher Status Update.

From pg. 5 of 2013 Draft WDFW Maza­ma Pock­et Gopher Sta­tus Update.

This asser­tion has been refut­ed by sci­en­tists, who have stat­ed that phys­i­cal appear­ance is deter­mined more by a gopher’s envi­ron­ment, rather than genetics.

This claim has even been refut­ed by Wash­ing­ton Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) on page 5 their 2013 Draft Maza­ma Pock­et Gopher Sta­tus Update, at right.

(Note: On this same page, how­ev­er, WDFW still appar­ent­ly relies on the 1960 penis draw­ings to iden­ti­fy Thurston County’s gophers as being from the “Maza­ma” species.)

Even though WDFW rejects this 1942 essay’s under­ly­ing the­o­ry of what makes a sub­species, the agency still fights, inex­plic­a­bly, to pro­tect “sub­species” that were iden­ti­fied by using this same anti­quat­ed method that they clear­ly discredit.

1997 DNA tests show no sub­species iden­ti­fied in Thurston County

In 1997, two Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton Zool­o­gists, Eleanor Stein­berg and Dana Heller, pub­lished Using DNA and Rocks to Inter­pret the Tax­on­o­my and Patchy Dis­tri­b­u­tion of Pock­et Gophers in West­ern Wash­ing­ton Prairies.  In this report, they chal­lenged the 1942 the­o­ry of mul­ti­ple gopher sub­species in the Thurston Coun­ty area, for two reasons.

On page 44, they dis­put­ed the 1942 asser­tion that phys­i­cal appear­ance deter­mined a subspecies—just as WDFW did, in 2013.

On pages 45–47, Stein­berg and Heller pre­sent­ed the results of DNA tests per­formed on some of Thurston County’s dif­fer­ent “subspecies”—and found no genet­ic differences.

As a result, Stein­berg and Heller assert­ed that, based on these DNA tests, there was no known evi­dence of pock­et gopher sub­species in the area.

This report has not stopped state, local, and fed­er­al pro­tec­tion of these unproven “sub­species,” with oppres­sive reg­u­la­tions and threats of crim­i­nal and civ­il charges.

Where’s the proof?

Larry Weaver

Lar­ry Weaver

All of these details may explain why WDFW won’t give Rochester real­tor Lar­ry Weaver his gopher blood back, after they sup­pos­ed­ly col­lect­ed it from his prop­er­ty for genet­ic research.

And these details may explain why Lar­ry Weaver’s son Chris was arrest­ed in 2010 by five armed WDFW offi­cers for admit­ting to trap­ping two gophers on his own property.

The five armed WDFW offi­cers took his bar­ren mole traps and his buckets–even though he may not have trapped a pro­tect­ed gopher.

Chris Weaver now has a crim­i­nal record for admit­ting to trap­ping two gophers that may or may not have been pro­tect­ed, with no evi­dence of his crime–thirteen years after the 1997 DNA tests results that showed no sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence of pock­et gopher sub­species in Thurston County.

What was supposed to be a yard for a new home in Rochester, WA–until gopher laws took over.

What was sup­posed to be a yard for a new home in Rochester, WA–until gopher laws took over.

These details may also explain why south Thurston Coun­ty cit­i­zens face heavy civ­il and crim­i­nal charges if they trap their own gophers, to have them DNA tested.

The Weavers’ gophers may or may not have been a pro­tect­ed “sub­species.”

Their gophers may not have been from the ESA-list­ed Maza­ma species, from 350 miles away.

Yet the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment states that it doesn’t need DNA proof for an ESA list­ing as long as they ref­er­ence an author­i­ty with lit­tle cred­i­bil­i­ty, and Wash­ing­ton state can cre­ate sus­pi­cious doc­u­ments to hurt south Thurston Coun­ty cit­i­zens in the future.

Crater Lake, created by the eruption of Mt. Mazama–and home to the Mazama pocket gopher species. Photo from the Crater Lake National Park website.

Crater Lake, cre­at­ed by the erup­tion of Mt. Mazama–and home to the Maza­ma pock­et gopher species. Pho­to from the Crater Lake Nation­al Park website.

The 1960 gopher penis draw­ings appear to be the only “proof” that the gov­ern­ment has of the Thurston Coun­ty gophers being mem­bers of the Maza­ma clan. The 1942 essay appears to be the government’s only “proof” of the exis­tence of sub­species, which was clear­ly chal­lenged 17 years ago, by the Stein­berg-Heller DNA tests.

DNA tests are the only way to val­i­date the results of the 1997 Stein­berg-Heller report about no gopher sub­species exist­ing in Thurston County.

DNA tests are also the only way to prove whether Thurston County’s pock­et gophers are even mem­bers of the far away Maza­ma species, rather than the sur­round­ing “North­ern” talpoides species.

Unless some­one can find a real­ly good artist this time around.


Fea­ture image from “The Mur­relet,” Vol­ume 41, Num­ber 2, page 20.

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