For Immediate Release, April 8, 2014

Contact: Noah Greenwald, (503) 484-7495

Washington's Mazama Pocket Gophers Protected Under Endangered Species Act

Gophers' Rare Puget Prairie Home Threatened by Sprawl, Invasive Species

PORTLAND, Ore.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized Endangered Species Act protection today for four subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers and designated 1,607 acres of protected critical habitat in Washington’s Thurston County, including at the Olympia Airport. The decision was part of a landmark settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity requiring the agency to speed protection decisions for 757 species across the country. It also included a “special rule” exempting airport, agricultural and other activities from the prohibitions of the Endangered Species Act — a tactic Fish and Wildlife is increasingly using to avoid inconveniencing industries and landowners with endangered species on their land.  

Mazama pocket gopher
Photo by Kim Flotlin, USFWS. This photo is available for media use.

“With this decision the unique Mazama pocket gopher and its Puget prairie home have a fighting chance,” said Noah Greenwald, the Center’s endangered species director. “It’s deeply disappointing, though, to have activities that clearly destroy these pocket gophers’ homes — like plowing — categorically exempted so they can go on as usual. There is a way to balance the need to allow activities that benefit the gopher, such as mowing of airport fields, without exempting harmful activities from regulation. This decision fails to find that balance.”

There were once nine subspecies of Mazama pocket gopher, first identified as needing protection in 1985. Since then two subspecies, the Tacoma and Cathlamet pocket gophers, have been declared extinct. The four subspecies protected today include the Olympia, Roy Prairie, Tenino and Yelm pocket gophers, all of which are threatened by urban and agricultural sprawl that plows under their prairie habitats, as well as invasion of prairies by trees that thrive in the absence of regular fire. Three other subspecies were determined not to need protection. 

“Saving the Mazama pocket gopher means saving the last little bits of beautiful Puget prairie we have left,” said Greenwald. “That’s something that benefits us all.” 

Mazama pocket gophers are stocky rodents, up to 11 inches in length, with short necks and powerful limbs. They are reddish-brown with a black nose and lips and black patches behind the ears and get their name from pockets in their cheeks that are used to carry vegetation into their burrows. Pocket gophers serve an important role aerating soils and stimulating plant growth, thereby helping to maintain species richness and diversity in native prairies. They currently are found on a few scattered remnant Puget prairies in Thurston and Pierce counties. 

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 675,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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