Pocket gopher not protected as an endangered species

THE U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE has decided not to protect the Wyoming pocket gopher as an endangered species, the agency announced today.

This decision came in response to a 2007 petition to list the animal as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

You can read the official 12-month finding by clicking here.

The diminutive Wyoming pocket gopher is the only mammal found exclusively in Wyoming. Its entire known range is inside Wyoming’s Carbon and Sweetwater counties in the Red Desert. Recent research on Wyoming pocket gophers has confirmed that the species is genetically distinct from other pocket gopher species.

Sophie Osborn, wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said she was surprised by the Obama administration’s decision, but she added that it highlights the critical need for more research to determine the impact of development on the species.

In its written decision, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service points to a lack of scientific information about how development might impact Wyoming pocket gophers.

Osborn said it’s true more information is needed, but she said this decision is risky. If development does prove to be detrimental to the animal, which is likely, it could be too late to protect the species by the time scientists have the necessary data. Thousands of oil and gas wells are proposed throughout the Wyoming pocket gopher’s range, as well as industrial-scale wind development.

“This decision has, in a sense, shifted much of the responsibility for ensuring the species’ survival to the federal Bureau of Land Management, which will oversee energy development in the animal’s range,” Osborn said. “We do not want to see the Wyoming pocket gopher go extinct because of a lack of knowledge.”

The Wyoming pocket gopher’s entire known range is slated for intensive energy development, Osborn said, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service admitted that there are inadequate regulatory mechanisms in place to protect the species.

“So the Bureau of Land Management will need to ensure that specific conservation measures are instituted to protect this rare and important species in the face of such development,” she said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also acknowledged in its official finding that a preliminary study has already indicated that the Wyoming pocket gopher is the species in Wyoming “with the highest potential risk for energy-related effects based on its proximity to existing wells, the proportion of lands leased for oil and gas within its range, and the density of wells within that range.”

Although the results of this study are still preliminary, the BLM should consider the implications of these findings as the agency mulls management actions that could affect the species, Osborn said.

The Wyoming pocket gopher, or Thomomys clusius, is a sandy-colored, underground-dwelling mammal that feeds primarily on roots, tubers, and surface vegetation near its burrow entrances. Despite their small size and elusive habits, pocket gophers benefit their ecosystem by aerating the soil with their digging and tunneling, enriching it with organic matter, and improving its water retention capacity during spring runoff, Osborn said.

Pocket gophers are important to native ecosystems because their activities can influence the distribution of plants, which in turn affects the herbivores that feed on these plants.

Contact: Sophie Osborn, Wyoming Outdoor Council, 307-742-6138; sophie@wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org.

Sophie Osborn is a wildlife biologist and the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s wildlife program manager. She is the author of the award-winning book Condors in Canyon Country.

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