Pocket Gophers: The Endangered Species that Calls Saint Martin’s Home

Andrew Oslin, Staff Editor

In the grassy meadows that extend through the open expanses of our campus lives a small creature that has had a significant impact on the operations of the university. The Mazama pocket gopher is a nocturnal, mole-like animal that creates discrete, sandy mounds that are low to the ground and have an exit to the side (instead of on top). It is endangered, and its habitat is enclosed by the urban city environment of Lacey.

“They tend to be rather solitary, they have their own space, [and] they eat roots,” said Andrew Moyer, who is the director of fiscal affairs and real estate for the Abbey. “[It’s] hard to see them. They can be seen, but you have to be very, very careful because most of their work is underground.”

Moyer has a long history of serving at Saint Martin’s that extends back to May 26th, 2009. As a representative of the Abbey, he has years of experience working with developments that arise on account of the critter. Since the Abbey owns the land, they have broad say in the operations that pertain to it. 

The main point of interest is a collaborative effort that intends to preserve the pocket gopher and to protect it from land development.

“The real issue is the Habitat Conservation Plan, and so that’s the deal between essentially the Abbey and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife,” Moyer said. “We’re so completely surrounded by city that there’s no way for a new gene pool to enter into this, so it’s felt that this is a weak system. But they want to encourage us to preserve as much as we can, so the school’s been involved in that.”

The protections on the species have meant that certain buildings have been constructed differently from how they would have been otherwise. For example, the Foundry and the new Ernsdorff Center were built away from these protected lands, creating the need to clear out a swath of forestry. This pattern could continue as the structural needs of our institution grow.

“Those two buildings are a direct effect of the pocket gopher being listed and then putting something in place,” Moyer explained. “So we give and take a little bit. We’re not going to be able to build the field north of New Cebula, which was our original plan, so we’re going to have to infill if we want to do buildings there, or build into the forest, unfortunately.”

The gopher also impacted the development of the steep hillside that Old Main sits upon, specifically around the main staircase, according to Moyer. When trees were cleared out and construction plans were ready to move forward, it was discovered that there were pocket gophers on top of the hill where they were not anticipated to be, leading to a halt in operations.

In a complex process that involves the details of land credits, licensing, and its relationship with land acreage, the Abbey must work with the city to maintain its rights to the land and to stay in compliance with the conservation efforts.

“This piece goes for 20 years, but really the land sequestration is permanent unless some administration down the road were to allow for the removal of that, or if we were to apply for a new habitat conservation plan,” Moyer said. “We work with the government and also involve the Abbey purchasing credits at an offsite mitigation, so we’ve done that. Now, we’re in the last stages of the habitat conservation plan.”

Of course, working through the confines of the plan advances no intention of harming the wildlife that calls the Pacific Northwest its home. It does, however, attempt to find the balance between serving the needs of the community and preserving native fauna. 

“When we’re mitigating, we’re not moving gophers. We’re being allowed to do certain things on campus in terms of construction, and what we’ve done is purchase an area where gophers are teeming right now, or doing well,” Moyer said. “What the government’s trying to do is cobble together more and more pieces of this land, and the money, if you will, to support the care of that land so the gophers have a fighting chance.”

The process of carrying through the plan from its inception on paper, to taking the necessary action steps to fulfill it, has been far from simple.

“We’ve had our ups and downs,” Moyer explained. “This has literally taken years to put together, and what would happen was one of the staff at U.S. Fish [and Wildlife] would move on and we literally had, I think, three restarts, and on the second one, everything was out the window and we had to basically start all over.”

Despite this difficult journey, Moyer recognizes the efforts of the local government to do the best they can to promote the diverse priorities of our municipality.

“The school’s been wonderful, and ultimately so has U.S Fish [and Wildlife]. Everybody makes negative comments about the government. Is some of the stuff frustrating? Only because we don’t see the whole picture, but as you get further and further into it, and as we got that, we found ourselves saying, ‘okay that makes sense.’”

Moyer wants to continue to help ensure that students have the opportunities they need to gain a rich and well-rounded education. 

“It does provide opportunities with the school, especially with Dr. Bodi and any of the sciences, to look at an endangered species, almost like a laboratory on your front porch,” he said.

Dr. Bodi and his students have performed testing on native grasses, the reintroduction of which is part of the Wildlife Conservation Plan. 

“But to just be able to have that kind of involvement, and to even kind of touch base with the government, down the road that could prove invaluable for students who are in that field, even on a professional level. So, from every single angle there are positives that can be found in what seems at first to be a negative.”

Moyer is optimistic about the future of Saint Martin’s as it relates to the pocket gopher.

“We grew to know how to work with the government, and even when we were maybe not in agreement, they were pretty good about explaining where they were coming from,” he said. “There were frustrations, but ultimately, from my standpoint, it’s been a really positive experience.”

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