OLYMPIA – Last week, Thurston County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the 2017 gopher review process for permit applicants. This year’s process is different from previous years in several significant ways. In order to meet Federal Requirements associated with the Endangered Species Act, this process is the result of a collaborative effort between the Commissioners and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), with the objective of benefiting Thurston County residents by streamlining the review process.
These significant updates include:
- Reducing the maximum number of on-property visits from three to two. In past years, projects on habitat more likely to sustain gophers were subject to three visits.
- Adding more flexibility to the timing of visits. In previous years, final visits were required in September or October. This year, the final visit can occur as early as August, and in some cases even sooner.
- Expanding the list of project types and site conditions that may no longer be subject to multiple site visits. The County considers these conditions to be less likely to impact gopher habitat.
- Adding more biologists to conduct on-site reviews. USFWS agreed to send more of their biologists to help the County keep up with demand and reduce the backlog.
- Eliminating the third site-visit. Instead, if there is no evidence of gophers, applicants on more-preferred soils will be asked to sign an affidavit before the County issues an approval. Landowners will also be responsible for informing USFWS if they find the federally protected species prior to or during project construction. This will be required because the County’s site review process has changed but federal Endangered Species Act regulations have not.
Other changes include prioritizing project-related permit applications over non-project reviews when scheduling site visits. In 2015, the County began offering low-cost gopher-only reviews of full properties to curious land owners, even if they did not apply for a building permit. The County will no longer offer that option, but County officials say anyone with a non-project application already in the queue can convert to a project application by Friday, June 30, 2017.
County officials also noted that land-owners who want to know if they have gophers on their property can hire private biologists for a review. However, reviews by private consultants do not meet USFWS requirements.
The rest of the 2017 process is similar to last year’s with site visits from County staff and USFWS biologists between June 1 and October 31. The County is asking permit applicants scheduled for gopher reviews to mow Scotch broom and heavy grasses right away, or immediately after they submit an application that is flagged for gopher review. Overgrowth slows review teams and creates a need for additional visits.
The Gopher Review Process is only for those who submit an application to Thurston County’s Permit Assistance Center (PAC). The County does not perform gopher reviews on properties that do not have an active application or that are not on mapped gopher habitat.
The purpose of County gopher review
The County conducts on-site reviews of properties before issuing building permits to help residents comply with state and federal endangered species laws, and to protect the County and its permit holders from liability under those laws. The Mazama pocket gopher – a species found in parts of Thurston County, was listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2014.
Only about 10 percent of permit applicants get gopher reviews
Gopher reviews are only required for projects proposed within mapped gopher soils. That means the County only reviews a fraction of the roughly 4,000 construction permit applications received in a typical year. Most applications for projects like interior remodels and projects outside of the mapped gopher soil areas do not require review. You can check your Thurston County property on a County soils map
online to see if your property is within mapped gopher soils.
Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP)
County officials say the seasonal gopher review could be a thing of the past if the County adopts a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) that would lead to an Incidental Take Permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With an HCP, the County could issue permits year round without requiring gopher reviews. Implementing such a plan could speed up the permit process and help permit applicants comply with state and federal species protection laws.
The plan isn’t final yet, but County Commissioners are working closely with federal officials to negotiate the best options for the community. A draft of the plan could be available for public review early next year.