Officials are working to resolve development related issues created by the screening process
Thurston County's 2016 gopher review season began June 1, with County and federal biologists screening sites where development is proposed on or near gopher habitat. Such screenings are the new normal for County permit applicants in the wake of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing of the Mazama Pocket gopher. The gopher was listed in April 2014 by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the federal agency who oversees the ESA.
County officials say only about 10 percent of the applications it receives require gopher screenings, a number consistent with past years. But officials caution that the total number of applications is on the rise. Early County estimates indicate that there are about 400 permit applications currently waiting for gopher review. That's roughly 100 more than the County received by this same time last year, with more coming in daily.
In 2015 the County screened 286 properties during the review season, which ran from June 1 through October 31. This year, the County expects to complete about as many, but with more applications in line, officials are looking for ways to keep up with increased demand.
Last year, the County conducted site screenings four days each week. This year, the number of screening days is down to three because County biologists must conduct site screenings in tandem with USFWS biologists. The County currently has staff available to perform four visits a week, but USFWS needs to fund additional staff to keep pace with current demand. The screening process can include up to three on-site visits, at least 30 days apart, between June and early October. The County is proactively working with USFWS to increase screening capacity for 2016 and is also working on ways to move applications through its own permitting system faster.
Grants from USFWS have funded much of the gopher screening work. In recent years USFWS has provided $2.5 million in grants to Thurston County. These grants helped reduce the costs of biological reviews for residents. Currently, permit applicants pay the standard fees associated with applying for a County permit, but do not pay extra for gopher screenings or the reports that are generated after those screenings.
To learn more about the 2016 gopher review process, go to www.ThurstonPlanning.org