Thurston County's 2015 gopher review process began on June 1 and runs through October 30, 2015. So far, the county estimates it has received about 400 permit applications that require gopher review. That's about 100 more than the county received by the end of the 2014 gopher review season last October. -30-
The county projected this year's gopher review process would require more time to complete because it is more thorough than the 2014 process. To help manage the volume, the county added a second team to conduct site reviews and asked for permit application submittals by August 3.
Even with a second screen team in place, the review schedule for 2015 is full. County staff are prioritizing applications received by August 3 and are also reviewing those received after that date to see if any additional site reviews can be added to the 2015 schedule. Staff are working to complete all reviews by October 30, which is the end of the 2015 review season. Unfortunately, not every application submitted after August 3 will receive a gopher review before the close of the review period.
This year's gopher review process is more comprehensive than last year's because of the number of site visits required. The county adopted a gopher review process recommend by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), overseers the Endangered Species Act. The process includes either two or three site visits, at least 30 days apart for each permit application for a project on or near gopher habitat.
"We're working with federal officials to try to keep our permit desk open and to maintain local control of permitting decisions," said Cynthia Wilson, Interim Director of Thurston County's Resource Stewardship department. "The Endangered Species Act (ESA) says we can't permit activities that impact gophers, and in order to show that we are not, the short-term solution is to use this gopher review process," she explained. "This process allows USFWS to do its job, which is to protect gophers, and allows us to do ours," she said.
Wilson is referring to the federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, which prohibits 'take' and defines it as, "To harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct." The 2014 ESA listing of four subspecies of the Mazama pocket gopher extends those protections to gophers on public and private lands.
The federal ESA listing came in the wake of lawsuits against the USFWS by three environmental groups. The Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Northwest Ecosystem Alliance sued USFWS in 2002 and in 2011 in U.S. District Court over the Mazama pocket gopher listing. Federal officials settled out of court agreeing to add the gopher to the Endangered Species Act list. The ESA outlines Prohibited Acts in Section 9 and Penalties and enforcement in Section 11.
But it is Section 10 of the ESA to which the county is looking for relief. Section 10 provides an exception known as an incidental take permit which can be issued by USFWS, the same federal agency that oversees ESA enforcement. Wilson says the county is working towards a take permit by preparing the required Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) that would cover all county permitting activities.
"We're proactively working to get a take permit, which is the long-term solution," Wilson said. "Before we can apply to USFWS for the permit, we must prepare a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) which is a required part of the application for a take permit," she continued.
Thurston County's HCP will define the county's approach to development and permitting for up to 30 years. The county expects to have a draft HCP ready for public review and comment as early as next year. Once the public weighs in, the county will submit the HCP and apply to USFWS for a take permit, which it hopes to have in time for the 2017 building season.
HCPs are a tool used by local and state governments that allow land use decisions and policy-making to remain at the local level, while still meeting the federal requirements for conserving and protecting species that are listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The Mazama pocket gopher is part of a list of Pacific Northwest prairie species that are listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA.
You can find more details about Thurston County's Habitat Conservation Plan and the 2015 gopher review process at www.ThurstonPlanning.org. You can also subscribe to the county's Permitting and Long Range Planning departments' email list. To speak to a Thurston County planner about the gopher review process, please contact Andrew Deffobis at DeffobA@co.thurston.wa.us or (360) 786-5467.