Three species and the prairies they call home could be added to the federal endangered species list, leaving an unknown future for Thurston County landowners and training operations at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Evidence suggests that four of nine Mazama pocket gopher subspecies are threatened with extinction. The Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly is believed to be in danger of extinction and the streaked-horned lark is threatened, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
All three are found on South Sound prairies, which under the proposal would be considered critical habitat for the pocket gopher. Only 10 percent of the area’s original prairies still exist, with a fraction of that considered high-quality habitat.
That species and habitat designation could have adverse affects on property values, limit property uses and affect training grounds at JBLM.
The process to list the species and the habitat began in December, and will take up to a year. The comment period for the proposal reopened last week and will close May 3.
Thurston County is taking a multi-species approach when crafting a Habitat Conservation Plan that would provide a one-stop shop for landowners and builders to go for permits, ensuring they are compliant with county and federal laws. The plan also would help with mitigation options for landowners who have critical habitats or species on their property.
The plan would protect 18 prairie species and the habitat considered endangered or threatened by the state or federal government, according to county planning director Scott Clark.
The 18 species include the gopher, lark and butterfly.
While the plan could take up to seven years to complete Clark said the county hopes to have the plan finalized and in effect within three years.
A draft of the plan is expected to be ready for public comment this year, with a proposal ready for submission in 2014.
Clark’s presentation Saturday at the Thurston County fairgrounds to landowners included maps of Thurston County in 1941 compared with the present day. Much of the prairie land, including Bush Prairie in Tumwater, Hawks Prairie in Lacey and Grand Mound, are developed.
“Prairies are fantastic places to build — they are flat, well drained, there is no clearing for stumps, just great to build on,” Clark said. “Our pioneering fathers came in and loved that.”
The county is working to create an interim permitting strategy so as not to delay development while the plan is created.
If accepted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the conservation plan would include a longer-term plan lasting between 30 and 50 years, Clark said.
“There are constantly changing regulations,” Clark said. “If we can get regulations set for a period of 30 to 50 years, people now have the predictability they are looking for, for their economic investment.”
A stakeholder meeting is expected to be held in August, Clark said.
While the county works on the conservation plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be drafting an Environmental Impact Statement. That will determine whether the county’s conservation plan and an incidental take permit are approved.
Incidental take permits would allow for routine operations to continue, such as grading roads or airport operations, and not fault the county or a property owner if a member of a species is injured.
“We believe that conserving these prairies requires that we work with people,” said Ken Berg of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It requires people work with the prairies, live in harmony in the prairies .
“These prairies require active management, and any plan that addresses the prairies will address how people have agriculture, ranching and farming and other activities that will have impacts.”
David Schaffert, president of the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce, already has seen negative effects on property values.
“There are dramatic impacts on properties in our area,” Schaffert said. “I know there are efforts to try to create certainty, but in our humble opinion we aren’t seeing them as avenues to create certainty.”
John Kaufman, owner of Kaufman Construction & Development Inc., has been working with the state since 2006. He said several projects have been delayed because of potential gopher activity or prairie habitat on his lands.
“It put a stifle on our contract work and our development work, being as we own a fair amount of land in the Tumwater area around the airport,” Kaufman said. “It impacted us pretty significantly.”
The company, which was started in 1965, owns about 100 acres of undeveloped land, most of which has utility infrastructure installed. Kaufman has repeatedly gone through mitigation that requires him to preserve a percentage of his property for the endangered species and habitat.
“When you put all that infrastructure in, based on the plan you have to use, and then when it comes along and says you can only use half of it or a third of it, there is nothing in it anymore to make worth doing and, of course, property values haven’t gone up enough to make up the difference,” Kaufman said.
Crews are installing infrastructure on a 28-acre lot off Tilley Road that originally required a seven-acre offset to mitigate the land use, Kaufman said. Eventually, it was determined he would need to reserve only 21/2 acres.
“They didn’t know what they wanted for off-site mitigation,” Kaufman said. “If we are going to follow the rules, somebody needs to make them. But it’s kind of like the blind leading the blind and guessing. It’s been a lot of energy to me.”
The impacts would be felt citywide in Tumwater, according to City Manager John Doan.
“The designation of the pocket gopher as a threatened species would have a profound impact on the city of Tumwater, the opportunities for housing and employment growth, and the provision of public services like roads and schools,” Doan said.
The Tumwater School District recently purchased property on the corner of 70th Avenue Southwest and Kirsop Road knowing there might be gophers on the land. The property was platted for 94 lots, and valued at more than $1 million.
The school district purchased the land for $250,000, according to Mel Murray, school district capitol projects supervisor.
“With that uncertainty, it was a bargain price,” Murray said. “Even if we do something with mitigation, we still might get a really good deal on the property.
“Right now we just don’t know what that mitigation might be — on-site or if we purchase into another land bank elsewhere.”
Murray said one of the district’s concerns is ensuring they can continue normal maintenance and operations on athletic fields.
“Normal operations like mowing, thatching, that kind of thing — we just want to make sure we are covered and can continue to do that,” Murray said. “We don’t think it is going to be a problem, but we hear we should get something in the plan for it.”
Work to conserve prairies has been led by the Center for Natural Lands Management South Sound Prairies Program.
The department hosts a variety of prairie events, including the annual Prairie Appreciation Day in May at the Glacial Heritage Preserve. More than 3,000 Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly larvae will be released at the preserve this spring.
The butterflies were raised by inmates, one of several programs at the local prisons. Inmates also raise native plants to be planted on Thurston County’s prairies, according to Patrick Dunn, South Puget Sound program director.
“The inmates grow the plants to plugs, then we put them back out on the prairies,” Dunn said.
Plants also are raised at Shotwells Landing Nursery in Littlerock. Several volunteers and AmeriCorps members helped weed at the nursery Friday.
“Prairies are a unique resource for the county,” Dunn said. “Thurston County still has one of the most extensive prairies in Washington. We have this heritage that’s special and doesn’t occur anywhere else.”
Issues around protecting species and conserving habitat are nothing new to Joint Base Lewis-McChord administrators, who have worked with state and federal wildlife agencies for years.
JBLM is an 87,000-acre military base that contains and maintains about 90 percent of the South Puget Sound’s remaining prairie lands, according to Hal Nelson, base range officer.
About 14 percent of its acreage is prairie and home to the three species pending endangered species designation. What the possible designation could mean for the base is still unknown. It is unlikely, but possible, it could close training areas.
“It’s a very remote possibility,” said David Clouse, Fish and Wildlife Program Manager. “We have been doing good things here for a long time, and the Fish and Wildlife Services know that.
“They know we are doing what we can to protect the species, but also manage the resources here.”
The more likely effects of an endangered species and habitat designation would mean more work for the base environmental office in documenting and monitoring the species, as well as possibly restricting activities in more critical areas.
“There will be impacts, but I don’t believe there will be any catastrophic impacts,” environmental chief Paul Steucke said.
The 12,000 acres of prairie is found throughout JBLM, including Gray Army Airfield, McChord Field, the artillery impact areas and six base training areas where soldiers participate in a variety of training missions, including maneuver, tactical and airborne operations.
Maintaining those lands is crucial for both military operations and ecological purposes. The responsibility to keep those areas maintained falls to Nelson and his staff.
“We maintain that land,” Nelson said. “The reason we still have these species here in any type of number is because of the things that we do, not in spite of the things we do.”
Base crews work to remove invasive species such as Scotch broom that overwhelm the prairies and drive out native species.
Parts of the 1,200-acre Training Area No. 14 known as Rodgers Drop Zone has sections of year-old Scotch broom growing across a dirt road from blackened 3-year-old plants. The range operations teams routinely burn the areas to eradicate the invasive species and allow the native plants to flourish. Nelson said his team has 150 pounds of native seed used to plant 75,000 native plugs each year to repair and maintain the prairies.
An area marked off with stakes shows where Taylor’s checkerspot butterflies are waiting to emerge from their cocoons and, hopefully, reclaim Training Ground 14 as their home.
The butterflies were found on the training area years before, but mysteriously disappeared, Nelson said. A new colony was brought in to try to restore the population.
Soldiers cannot drive through the marked-off area, but are allowed to walk through.
“We actively manage it, repair it and take care of it,” Nelson said.
Without human interference, Steucke said the prairies would no longer exist.
“It was a natural phenomenon formed by the glaciers, but maintained by the Native Americans,” Steucke said. “Prior to Europeans, it was the Native Americans, and the areas that weren’t mimicking what the Native Americans did disappeared.
“You could very well argue military training is one of the most compatible uses with these lands with the species.”
Chelsea Krotzer: 360-754-5476 firstname.lastname@example.org/thisjustin