Thurston County Habitat Conservation Plan Reaches Finish Line


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The Oregon Vesper Sparrow.

The Oregon Vesper Sparrow.

Courtesy of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Finally, after years of debate, complaints and hard work, Thurston County is on the verge of obtaining federal approval for its habitat conservation plan which calls for three pocket gopher subspecies of Mazama, as well as Taylor’s Checkered Moth, Oregon Spotted Frog, and Oregon Vesper Sparrow – all threatened or endangered.

The Habitat Conservation Plan is a comprehensive strategy in which the county will preserve enough habitat to support grassland-dependent species and enough wetlands for frogs over the next 30 years. In return, the federal government will issue an “incidental take permit” to the county. “Bycatch” is a term for disturbing the habitat or harming individuals of a listed species as long as it does not threaten the survival of the species.

This permit means there will be no more federal interference in county building permits — and that’s good news for developers and people who want to build on their property. Starting in 2023, building permit applicants will no longer need a federal permit or a county permit. This means more gopher inspections and a much more predictable process. It’s a huge relief for the county, which has faced the wrath of permit applicants for years. Now they will only face half the wrath.

Saving habitat is the name of the game for restoring threatened and endangered species. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, less than 10% of Thurston County’s historic prairie habitat remains due to development and cessation of tribal and natural fires that prevented brush and trees from growing on the prairies. . Only 3% of prairie land is in good condition to support threatened or endangered species covered by the county’s HCP.

To save enough habitat to support the recovery of all these creatures, the county will need to buy land from willing vendors, partner with existing reserves to improve habitat, and offer incentives for farmers to help where they can.

The department has already started land acquisitions. This will be an ongoing challenge over the next 30 years, as the more development there is, the more land conserved will be needed to offset the impacts of development.

Land acquisition will be funded in part by county fees which will require developers to pay higher fees if they intend to disturb more habitat, and lower fees if they choose land or parts of land where creatures do not thrive.

The goal is to balance the need for development to accommodate population growth and economic activity with the need to help threatened and endangered species thrive and recover.

The county will surely want to do a victory dance when federal approval is finalized. It took four drafts of a habitat conservation plan, an environmental impact statement that spanned a year, and a more recent effort to draft the laws and codes that the county commission will need to approve to make this happen. implemented.

This work began in 2013, when all three subspecies of Mazama Pocket Gophers (Tenino, Yelm, Olympia) were federally listed as threatened. It should be noted that the federal registrations were slow in coming; the state lists were proposed in 1996 and approved by the state in 2006.

But while this is a new chapter for the county, the county isn’t the only local government involved. The largest population of the Olympia gopher subspecies is at and near Olympia Airport, and Tumwater and the Port of Olympia are working together on a habitat conservation plan for them.

And now that Olympia is acquiring a park and school lot on the Yelm Highway that is home to a gopher habitat, the city will have some responsibility for these creatures as well.

JBLM has a fourth subspecies called the Roy pocket gopher which is native primarily to Pierce County. JBLM includes the majority of undeveloped habitat in the South Sound prairie. JBLM has partnered with other agencies to create the Sentinel Landscape, which aims to preserve grassland habitat inside and outside the base, and complement other conservation efforts.

All that focus on pocket gophers, butterflies, birds and frogs is needed. As human stewards of the natural world, we still have a lot to learn and a lot of work to do to live sustainably with these neighbors so that we all prosper.

spotted frog.jfif
Adult Oregon Spotted Frog at Dilman Meadows near Wickiup Preserve, Oregon. Bromine McCreary Courtesy of the US Geological Survey


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