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Northwest Could Get New Endangered Species Listing

OLYMPIA, Wash. - The Northwest may have another species listed as endangered. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Monday proposed listing the Mazama pocket gopher as threatened in the South Puget Sound region of western Washington. This is the third time this fall the government has moved to protect a critter that depends on dwindling Northwest prairies or coastal grasslands.

The pocket gopher gets its name from its cheek pouches, used to collect food. You're unlikely to see the little furry, tunnel diggers since they rarely show themselves in daylight. You have a much better chance of stumbling over the dirt mounds they leave behind on open fields and meadows in western Washington and Oregon's Willamette Valley. It is terrain the Mazama pocket gopher often shares with a dwindling songbird and a rare butterfly.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service state manager Ken Berg says development and habitat loss imperil all three prairie dependent species.

"The streaked horned lark, the Taylor's checkerspot butterfly and Mazama pocket gopher are bellwethers for the health of the Puget Sound prairie ecosystem," he explains. "These proposals to list them under the federal Endangered Species Act indicate the Puget Sound prairies are not healthy and they need more protection and more restoration."

The lark is tentatively listed across its entire range in Washington and Oregon, as is the butterfly. But the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes federal protection for the pocket gopher only in Pierce and Thurston counties in Washington. That's because only those gopher populations may be in danger of extinction "in the foreseeable future," according to the government.

Berg says the consequences for landowners and the economy should be limited.

"It's one of the more manageable endangered species stories in the country because prairies are easily restored, relative to other habitat types."

But some affected groups hope to stop the gopher listing in particular before it can take effect. The Port of Olympia and the non-profit Freedom Foundation among others say they'll present evidence that endangered status is unjustified.

Thurston County Chamber of Commerce President David Schaffert worries most about new federal oversight over land development.

"Take a look at the Mazama pocket gopher," he says. "Its distribution in a densely populated area of Thurston County could significantly reduce the opportunities for economic development, job creation."

Scientists say less than ten percent of the historic prairies of Western Oregon and Washington survive today. And that's the native habitat for the pocket gopher, Taylor's checkerspot butterfly and streaked horned lark.

The remaining strongholds for them include some unusual places. The military's Joint Base Lewis-McChord for one. A bunch of regional airports for another... including at Corvallis, Eugene, Salem, Portland and Olympia.

Former field biologist Noah Greenwald, who now works for the Center for Biological Diversity in Portland, says grass fires sparked by artillery and mowing at the airports actually help to maintain prairie-like conditions.

"What’s interesting about the prairies is that they were disturbance-adapted habitats," he says. "So there were fires that would regularly burn through and clear off trees. They kind of need disturbance to maintain themselves."

Greenwald's outfit was among the environmental groups that petitioned to add the three Puget Sound and Willamette prairie species to the endangered list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expects to finalize it protection plans in about a year.

The USFWS listing proposal notes that suburban sprawl and gravel mining have already driven one subspecies of the Mazama pocket gopher to extinction. The Tacoma pocket gopher has not been detected since the 1970's on its range, which stretched roughly from Point Defiance down to Steilacoom and east to Puyallup, Washington.

For Noah Greenwald, that extinction underscores the need for federal intervention on behalf of nearby pocket gopher populations.

"Before we provide protection for these guys we've already lost one subspecies, which is just a tragedy."

On the Web:

Washington state prairie species (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.