Gophers Prompt Property Rights Battle in Washington State

Published May 30, 2017

Since 2014, Thurston County, Washington landowners’ ability to develop their property has been severely restricted.

In that year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) classified three subspecies of the Mazama pocket gopher as threatened and thus protected under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA).

FWS listed the gopher subspecies as threatened even though it was unable to provide even a rough estimate of how many pocket gophers were living in Thurston County, based on the claim 95 percent of gophers’ habitat had been lost to development in the region, Fox News reported.

To avoid being sued by the federal government, Thurston County requires landowners who want to build on their property to determine whether their soils are suitable gopher habitat. If so, inspectors must make multiple site reviews between June 1 and October 31, when gophers are most active, to determine whether any gophers are present.

Land Restrictions, ‘Gopher Tax’

In one case, because inspectors discovered a single mound of dirt indicating the possible presence of gophers on an eight-acre parcel of land during a site review, Steve and Deborah McLain have been unable to get a permit to build a home on their property for more than a year, despite offering to cede the acre surrounding the mound as protected gopher habitat.

In another instance, a home developer had to fence off 64 percent of a one-acre lot to get a permit required to build a home.

To standardize the process of obtaining permission to build, some Thurston County officials are pushing a “gopher tax” of $42,000 on landowners who want to build in gopher territory. They say they would use the money to purchase land in other parts of the county as protected gopher habitat.

Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards says the ESA and other environmental laws are fomenting class warfare in the western United States.

“The rich can overcome the expensive regulatory hurdles erected by the ESA and still enjoy their rural million-dollar estates,” said Edwards. “By contrast, such laws prevent the rural poor and middle class, those working hard to eke out a living, from developing their properties in pursuit of the American dream.”

Brian Seasholes, an independent scholar, says the pocket gopher situation is just the latest example of the perverse incentives the ESA creates.

“This is just a microcosm of what is wrong with the Endangered Species Act,” Seasholes said. “Federal officials pursue a penalty-based approach to protecting species, creating enormous disincentives for people to have species on their land.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.