Survey teams from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife are searching Capitol State Forest for signs of Mazama pocket gophers, a protected species with an uncertain future.
Over the next five months, the investigation will expand to include parts of seven other counties as about 30 department biologists and volunteers work to learn more about the range and distribution of the small, burrowing rodent in Western Washington.
Greg Schirato, the department’s deputy wildlife program director, said survey teams will examine historic pocket gopher sites as well as check on sightings reported in other areas since the state classified the species as threatened in 2006.
“We’ve received reports in recent years of pocket gophers living in places that don’t show up in any of the scientific research,” Schirato said in a news release. “Given property owners’ concerns about land-use regulations associated with protected species, we need to make sure we have a complete picture of the species’ range and distribution.”
Schirato said any new findings will be reflected in a recovery plan for the species the agency hopes to complete by the end of the year. The department also plans to share its findings with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is expected to announce in September whether it will propose listing pocket gophers under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“In both cases, the findings of this updated survey could affect the future management of Mazama pocket gophers in our state,” Schirato said in the release. “We want to make sure we have a thorough understanding of the species’ status to ensure that future management is consistent with both the species’ biology and landowners’ interests.”
The survey teams will look for mounds and other evidence of gophers at hundreds of sites in Thurston, Pierce, Mason, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Clark, Clallam and Wahkiakum counties. New range expansions will be verified by live-trapping the animals.
Scientists have never considered timberlands prime pocket gopher habitat. The department’s initial status review of the species conducted in 2005 describes the Mazama pocket gopher as “a creature of the south Puget Sound prairie landscape.” Two of the state’s largest known gopher populations are at the Olympia and Shelton airports.
According to that review, “habitat loss to succession, agriculture and development has eliminated most of the prairie vegetation, and habitat continues to be lost to residential development.” With the state’s remaining pocket gopher population estimated “in the low thousands,” the state Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to list the species for state protection in 2006.
Since then, however, gopher mounds have been reported in areas and terrain quite different from the South Sound prairies, Schirato said. Two such areas are the Capitol State Forest in Thurston County and forestlands in Mason County – primarily in clear-cut areas, near roadways and along power line easements.
An exploratory survey in forested areas of Mason County last August confirmed the presence of pocket gophers at several sites through live-trapping, Schirato said. Now the department is taking a closer look at those sites and others in Western Washington to update the status report for this species.”
Finding new gopher populations is just one step in determining whether pocket gophers require special protection, Schirato said. Distribution, survival rates and the availability of suitable habitat are also important factors in assessing the future viability of the species, he said.
“This survey isn’t just about finding gopher mounds,” Schirato said in the release. “If we find a significant gopher presence in disturbed forested areas, we have to consider what happens when the trees grow up and the conditions change. We know how these animals use the prairies, but can they survive long-term in other habitats?”
Mazama pocket gopher
Length: 6-8 inches
Diet: Vegetation such as roots, bulbs and leaves.
Breeding: Early spring through early summer; one litter of three to seven per year.
Lifespan: 1-2 years, most of population is young adult.
Tunnels: 13/4-31/2 inches in diameter, 4-12 inches below ground; nest and food-storage chambers as deep as 6 feet.
Status: Population declining in part because of small, local breeding populations; loss of habitat to development; trapping and attacks from domestic animals has stopped recolonization of areas after local extinctions occur.
Range: The Mazama pocket gopher (Thomomys mazama) is a regional endemic found only in Western Washington, Western Oregon and Northern California. In Washington, T. mazama is likely represented by three surviving subspecies: T. m. yelmensis is found on the remnants of prairie in Pierce and Thurston counties; T. m. couchi is found on grassland at a few localities near Shelton in Mason County, including the airport; and T. m. melanops is found on a few alpine meadows in Olympic National Park in Clallam County.
History: Pocket gophers have played an important role in the ecology of the open meadows, prairies and grasslands at the southern end of Puget Sound, according to the 2005 status report and a number of independent studies. Through their burrowing, they turn the soil, increase plant diversity and provide refuge for smaller animals, according to a range of scientific studies. They are also an important prey species for hawks, owls and other predators.
Learn more: Go to wdfw.wa.gov/publications/00390.Source: State Department of Fish and Wildlife