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Originally published Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 7:39 PM

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U.S. starts 'threatened' listing for state's prairie gophers

The Mazama pocket gopher is being considered for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Olympian

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The U.S. government has launched the process of listing the Mazama pocket gopher as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. It joins two other South Puget Sound-area prairie species also on their way to being listed.

Evidence suggests four of nine Mazama pocket gopher subspecies are threatened with extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says.

To address that threat, the listing would designate 9,234 acres of prairie habitat in Thurston and Pierce counties as critical habitat.

That designation could limit use of the property, including property on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The process will take a year and will include opportunities for public comment.

The status of the prairie species has been a concern for a decade. In October, Fish and Wildlife proposed the Endangered Species Act listing for the Taylor's Checkerspot butterfly, which was determined to be in danger of becoming extinct, and the streaked horned lark, which is threatened.

The Mazama pocket gopher was proposed for listing then, but action was delayed 60 days after a letter from Gov. Chris Gregoire and the director of Fish and Wildlife requested more time to collect and process information.

The three species live in South Sound prairie lands. Only about 10 percent of the original prairie remains undeveloped; less than 3 percent of that is considered high-quality habitat.

The possible protection for the prairie species has raised concerns for landowners in rural Thurston County because the listings could limit land use and growth.

The county began creating a Habitat Conservation Plan that would set up a one-stop shop where landowners and builders could go for permits, ensuring they are compliant with both county and federal laws.

"The purpose of the Habitat Conservation Plan is to ensure long-term economic stability and sustainable development," said Ken Berg of U.S. Fish and Wildlife. "If the plan is completed and approved, landowners and business interests will have certainty that when the county issues a permit, that permit is compliant with the Endangered Species Act."

Prairie lands also are protected under the county's Critical Areas Ordinance.

Thurston County Planning Director Scott Clark said the county does not see any significant impact until the final determination of the species listing is made late next year.

"We are making sure we stay in front of this stuff by developing a plan to protect the species and how we avoid mitigation impacts," Clark said.

Land-use restrictions caused by the pocket gopher and the streaked horned lark would be less severe because both are potentially being listed as "threatened" instead of "endangered."

Because of that distinction, part of the listing proposal includes exemptions for small residential landowners and their properties. Any use of a property that would not otherwise require a permit from Thurston County would not require a permit under the Endangered Species Act, according to the proposed exemption.

But the possible listings not only pertain to Thurston and Pierce County property owners, but they also can affect Lewis-McChord.

Much of the base training ground is on prairie lands. Berg said the staff at JBLM has been planning for the possible endangered-species listing for a decade.

"They are ready for this, and they need help from the larger communities to conserve the prairie around the base," Berg said. "If land use around the base is not compatible, they will become an island of prairies in a sea of development that will affect their ability to train."

"If they can't train at Fort Lewis, they will have to go somewhere else ... probably out of the state," Berg said.

Fish and Wildlife also ruled Monday that the Tacoma pocket gopher, another species reviewed for protection, is extinct.

There is a 60-day public- comment period on the proposed listing.

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