Biologists on the prowl for elusive pocket gophers

  • By Sharon Wootton
  • Friday, October 5, 2012 5:15pm
  • Life

A genetically designed dog that fits into your pocket is unusual but is easier to find than the Mazama pocket gopher (Thomomys Mazama).

About 30 biologists and volunteers have been looking for signs of the burrowing rodents in Western Washington for more than a year to find out more about the range and distribution of the state-designated threatened species.

The survey team is looking for mounds and other evidence on hundreds of sites in Thurston, Pierce, Mason, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Clark, Clallam and Wahkiakum counties (they do not live in Mazama).

“We’re still looking,” said Greg Schirato, DFW’s deputy assistant director. “But you’d probably never see one. It’s not what the cat brings home.”

“We’ve received reports in recent years of pocket gophers living in places that don’t show up in any of the scientific research. They may be more abundant (than we thought) if they are found on additional sites.”

There’s more than scientific interest about the 6- to 8-inch pocket gophers, currently under consideration for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The gophers are mostly found in the South Sound prairie landscape created by retreating glaciers 15,000 years ago, one of the rarest ecosystems in the United States, according to the South Sound Prairie Landscape Working Group (www.southsoundprairies.org).

It’s known for its gravelly soils that dry out rapidly during droughts, and the vegetation and wildlife that live in those conditions. The state’s pocket gopher population is estimated to be in the low thousands.

Over the years, residential and commercial development has covered much of the prairie, and trees, including some commercial old-growth conifer forests, have thrived in some areas different in terrain than the South Sound prairies.

That concerns some property owners. EPA protection will come with rules to protect the pocket gophers. Half of the population has been found on private land.

“Industrial timber lands are a focus,” Schirato said. “Our preliminary findings are that pocket gophers are occupying timber clear-cuts when the soil is right.”

Up to now, scientists have never considered timber lands as prime pocket gopher habitat.

“We want to make sure we have a thorough understanding of the species’ status to ensure that future management is consistent with both the species’ biology and landowners’ interests,” Schirato said.

He said any new findings will be reflected in a recovery plan for the species that the agency hopes to complete by the end of the year.

Pocket gophers live in tunnels 4 to 12 inches below the surface, with nest and food storage areas as deep as 6 feet. The burrowing helps aerate the soil and brings down surface nutrients. Abandoned burrows become homes to other animals.

The diggers have heavily muscled shoulders, short limbs and longer curbed claws on the front legs than the rear ones. They mostly forage at night.Here are a few pocket gopher facts from www.southsoundprairies.org:

•Their lips can be closed behind their front incisor teeth, which the gophers use to help burrow.

Their soft, loose pelt enables the gophers to move backward as easily as they move forward through the narrow tunnels.

Each pocket gopher has two fur-lined cheek pouches extending from the lower portion of its face to its shoulders.

These pouches can be stuffed full of plant material, making it easy to transport food.

The pouches can be turned completely inside out when the gopher wants to deposit and store the food.

Inside out … bet a pocket dog can’t do that.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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