A Gopher in Your Pocket?

Amid the sprawl that is Douglas County -- the fastest-growing county in the nation in 2001 -- lives the Douglas County pocket gopher. The four- to five-ounce brown vegetarian is rarely seen outside of its burrow, and when the rodent does venture out, it's rarely farther than a body length. But a fight is brewing over the unsuspecting critter now that a slew of ideological biologists and environmental lawyers are trying to save its habitat from being paved over for parking lots.

This week, two nonprofit environmental organizations, the Colorado-based Center for Native Ecosystems and Arizona's Forest Guardians, filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Endangered Species to list the subspecies of the Northern pocket gopher, Thomomys talpoides macrotis, as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

"Habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss threaten the T.t.macrotis with imminent extinction," the petition reads. "The few surviving populations of this subspecies are in imminent danger of being extirpated by future development disturbance. Immediate listing is essential for the continued existence of this species."

Although the gopher once inhabited thousands of acres of rolling hills in what are now the Park Meadows Mall area and sprawling Highlands Ranch neighborhood, today it is relegated to just a few hundred - most of which are scheduled for development.

"It's always a little rodent versus some guy who wants to make a million bucks," observes Jay Tutchton, clinic director of the University of Denver's EarthJustice Environmental Law Clinic, which is providing legal support for the petition.

But it's hard to know exactly how big the problem is, because there are no definitive population estimates for the Douglas County pocket gopher, which earned its name from the fur-lined pouches in its cheeks. No one has studied the animal since the Colorado Heritage Foundation's 1994 report of four known habitats in the county. However, the Center for Native Ecosystems estimates the current global population to be only 501-1,000 individuals. "This little critter has suffered incredible declines and is now facing extinction," says executive director Jacob Smith. "The pocket gopher only has a handful of remaining sites."

Qualifying for endangered-species status is a complicated process bogged down by legal filings, budget woes and stiff competition -- not to mention opposition by developers, who must get all plans affecting endangered animals' habitats approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They were apoplectic about the 1998 listing of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse on the register. And don't even mention the white-tailed prairie dog. CNE, which is suing the USFWS over its failure to respond to the center's petitions to list the prairie dog, anticipates heavy fire from developers once they hear about the gopher. But for now, all is quiet.

So what, exactly, makes this species of rodent so worthy of salvation? "They might be small, but they really are an ecological heavyweight," says Nicole Rosmarino, endangered species coordinator for the Forest Guardians. "Just because they are an obscure subspecies doesn't mean they aren't important in the grand scheme of things."

They are considered a keystone species, meaning they make "an unusually strong contribution to community structure or processes." In layman's terms, they move dirt around -- lots of it. "They do a lot to change soil texture and soil chemistry; they do a lot of mixing, which creates new open patches for plants to grow," explains Erin Robertson, staff biologist at CNE. "The sheer volume of dirt that these things can move is amazing; their front paws are actually shaped to form a mini-bulldozer. They have a huge effect on the composition of an ecosystem and maintaining the integrity of an ecosystem. They shape fundamental processes."

However, because of the agency's budget constraints, it will probably be at least two years until the USFWS rules on the status of the Douglas County pocket gopher. "Nationally, their annual budget hovers between $7 and $10 million," Tutchton says. "That's nothing. The Department of Defense spends $10,000 a second, or more. And that's exactly what we're asking for would probably cost."

For 2003, the program has a budget of $9 million that is divvied up among the nation's seven regions, including the Mountain Prairie Region, which Colorado shares with six other states. "It's frustrating, but we can only use this certain amount of money, and that's it," says Chuck Davis, the listing coordinator for the region who oversees a staff of six full-time field biologists. "We will add it to our petition file, but we currently have no funds to work on it. And the way things are going, it's going to be a long time until we do."

The USFWS considers five factors when deciding whether to list a species: level of habitat destruction; over-utilization of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes; threat of disease or predation; existing state or federal regulatory programs; and other man-made or natural problems facing the species. There are currently 517 animal species and 745 plant species listed; 32 of them, along with nine petitions waiting for rulings, live in Colorado. Nationally, there are forty outstanding petitions and 274 species deemed endangered enough to warrant protection, but there is no funding to move forward. According to the national Endangered Species Coalition, at least 6,480 species are currently at risk of extinction in the United States.

Right now, the Douglas County gopher is in line behind the Yellowstone bison herd, the Rocky Mountain population of trumpeter swans and others for whom it is far easier to gain public support.

"We work on a priority system, with the species most in need of immediate protection getting the highest priority," says Tom Graf, attorney for the Department of Interior's solicitors' office in Lakewood. "Right now, we're basically working on petitions that we got back in 1999 and 2000. If a species was really faced with extinction, it would be treated as an emergency, but we have to make a decision whether or not we can afford to wait until the money comes in."

Protection under the Emergency Listing Rule is exactly what the CNE's petition is requesting, since development plans are already in the works for much of the remaining gopher habitats. One is a debris-strewn field located off C-470 between a Gart Sports store and a John Elway car dealership; another is a stretch of Highlands Ranch land scheduled to be converted into soccer fields and bike paths.

"Given the rate at which this area in general and the known sites have been developed, two years seems like a long time," Smith says. "It seems like the risk of extinction is pretty high if they don't get emergency protection. The whole thing is insane, to think that we're growing so quickly and carelessly that we're going to drive species to extinction in our own back yards. It's profoundly distressing. We can do better than that."

Unfortunately, the gopher resides in perhaps the worst county in one of the worst states for sprawl. Douglas County's population jumped from 25,000 residents in 1980 to 199,753 residents in 2001. And Colorado isn't far behind: Between 2000 and 2001, the state's population growth rate was the third-fastest of any state in the country, and Front Range residents increased in number from 2.7 million in 1990 to 3.6 million in 2001.

"The bigger question is, as we are growing, can we protect natural values like open spaces and our wildlife?" asks Smith. "These are the exact values that draw most new people to Colorado in the first place, but uncontrolled growth is destroying all of these things. The demise of the gopher, in my mind, is a huge red flag."

"When they're gone, they're gone. They won't ever come back," laments Tutchton as he sits in standstill traffic at I-25 and County Line Road in his Toyota Prius hybrid car. "We're just going to piss it all away for another Home Depot parking lot."

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Julie Dunn
Contact: Julie Dunn