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For Immediate Release, December 10, 2012

Contact: Tierra Curry, (928) 522-3681

Four Washington Pocket Gophers Proposed for Endangered Species Act Protection

Fifth Gopher Subspecies Goes Extinct Awaiting Decision

SEATTLE— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Endangered Species Act protection today for four subspecies of the Mazama pocket gopher and declared a fifth subspecies, the Tacoma pocket gopher, to be extinct. The agency also proposed to designate 9,234 acres (14 square miles) of “critical habitat” to protect the pocket gophers. The proposal was made in accordance with a landmark 2011 agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity requiring the agency to speed protection decisions for 757 imperiled species across the country. The Center petitioned for protection of the pocket gophers in 2002.

Mazama pocket gopher
Mazama pocket gopher photo courtesy USFWS. This photo is available for media use.

“It’s a tragedy that the Tacoma pocket gopher went extinct waiting for protection. Endangered Species Act protection will give the other subspecies a fighting chance and will also help protect their habitat — some of our few remaining prairie grasslands,” said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the Center.

Mazama pocket gophers only live in glacial outwash prairies and alpine and subalpine meadows. The four subspecies proposed for protection today are the Olympia, Roy Prairie, Tenino and Yelm pocket gophers. The Olympia pocket gopher is found in the prairie areas in and around Olympia Regional Airport. The Roy Prairie pocket gopher is found in the vicinity of the Roy Prairie and on the Joint Base Lewis-McChord military facility. Tenino pocket gophers live in the vicinity of the Rocky Prairie Natural Area Preserve. Yelm pocket gophers are found in prairie areas near Rochester, Rainier, Littlerock, Grand Mound and Vail.

Mazama pocket gopher populations have declined drastically due to the loss of prairie habitat to urban development and agriculture. The prairies of south Puget Sound are now one of the rarest ecosystems in the United States, and 95 percent of them have been lost. Pocket gophers are also threatened by poisoning and trapping in agricultural areas, fire suppression, spread of invasive plants, gravel mining, military training activities and predation by cats and dogs.

The Tacoma pocket gopher had been on a waiting list for federal protection since 2001. It was discovered in 1853 and ranged from Point Defiance in Tacoma south to Steilacoom and east to Puyallup. Its habitat was lost to residential and suburban development and gravel mining. Extensive surveys were conducted in the 1970s, the 1990s, and again in 2011, but no Tacoma pocket gophers were detected, leading the Service to determine that the subspecies is now extinct.

The 9,234 acres of critical habitat being proposed for protection are in Pierce and Thurston counties and includes federal, state, municipal and private lands. The eight areas proposed for protection include habitat at 91st Division Prairie, Marion Prairie, Olympia Regional Airport, Rocky Prairie, Tenalquot Prairie, West Rocky Prairie, Scatter Creek and Rock Prairie.

Pocket gophers get their name from external, fur-lined cheek pouches on the sides of their mouths that are used to carry plant material for food and nest-building. They are stocky, tube-shaped mammals with short necks, powerful limbs, long claws and tiny ears and eyes. They grow to be 11 inches long and have short, nearly hairless tails that are highly sensitive and help them navigate in their underground tunnels. They are reddish brown with black lips and noses, black patches behind the ears and white wrists.

Pocket gophers are very important in the food web because they eat plants and are eaten by weasels, snakes, badgers, foxes, skunks, bobcats, coyotes, owls and hawks. Burrows built by pocket gophers also provide habitat for other animals, including ground squirrels, frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, beetles and rodents. They play a key ecological role by aerating soils, activating the seed bank and stimulating plant growth. In prairie and meadow ecosystems, pocket gopher activity is important for species diversity.

Pocket gophers don’t need to drink water because they get the water they need from the plants they eat. Each gopher maintains its own burrow system, and males and females only share tunnels during the breeding season. Pocket gophers rarely surface from their burrows, except for juveniles, which disperse aboveground. Most pocket gophers live only a year or two, but some reach four years of age.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance petitioned for protection of eight Washington subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers in 2002.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 450,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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