Groups: Prairie species in peril - Protection sought for some South Sound gophers, butterflies and a lark



Environmental groups have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to grant Endangered Species Act protection to 12 prairie-dependent species, including several in South Sound.

The species included in the petition -- eight gopher subspecies, three butterflies and the streaked horned lark -- live in prairie and oak woodlands all but lost to sprawl and development, said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity, a petitioner in the case.

Extinction possible

Three of the gopher species might already be extinct, the petition states.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Doug Zimmer said Thursday his agency has not seen the petition and couldn't comment on its specifics.

As little as three percent of the prairie habitat remains from what was here 150 years ago, noted Leslie Brown of The Nature Conservancy.

"Without question, the habitat is imperiled and highly fragmented," she said, noting The Nature Conservancy is not one of the seven petitioners.

Some of the best remaining habitat occurs in south Thurston County and on Fort Lewis.

In fact, two of the species earmarked for protection reside at Olympia Regional Airport -- the ground-nesting, sparrow-sized lark, and the Olympia pocket gopher.

The Port of Olympia is working with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife on a plan to protect the species from further habitat loss at the airport, said Andrea Fontenot, port director of planning and engineering.

For instance, the port intends to remove nonessential pavement at the airport equal to the amount of pavement required for the $8.5 million runway realignment project, set to go out to bid next year. It should mean no net loss of habitat, she said.

By law, the federal agency has 30 days to reject or accept the petition. If accepted, the agency has a year to review it on its merits and decide whether to list or not, a process that can take another year. In reality, the deadlines often slip.

The pocket gophers, streaked horned lark and two butterfly species -- the Mardon skipper butterfly and Taylor's checkerspot butterfly -- are on a candidate list maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, akin to a waiting list for sick patients at a hospital.

Budget constraints and lawsuits requiring the agency to work on critical habitat plans for species already listed have all but stopped action to elevate candidate species to threatened or endangered status, agency officials have said.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


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