The city of Yelm is jumpstarting a multi-year study and planning effort to draft a habitat conservation plan that is expected to ease hurdles surrounding development within city limits while also addressing habitat scarcity of endangered species, most specifically the Mazama pocket gopher.
Yelm was recently awarded a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife that it applied for back in 2018 to start the process of researching a habitat conservation plan. Details are still scarce on what the process or finished draft will look like, city staff say, but they have guidance from the county and neighboring cities.
The plan will be filed with Fish and Wildlife in exchange for a multi-decade incidental take permit.
“It’s very likely that buying mitigation property someplace for a gopher reserve will be the answer, but we don’t actually know that for sure or how much land is needed or even how much land is impacted until we go through this three-year study,” said Grant Beck, Yelm’s community development director.
While the Mazama pocket gopher — federally listed under the Endangered Species Act since 2014 — has been identified as one of the prime species for jumpstarting this process, city staff say it’s yet to be determined if there are other federally-endangered species that may need to be covered under this plan. City staff declined to comment on how much land would be needed for a mitigation site.
Most of Yelm sits on prime pocket gopher habitat, the protection of which has stunted outside development and residential expansion in recent years. Developers quite often are required by Fish and Wildlife to set up mitigation sites on their own property.
Once implemented, the city’s conservation plan will allow developers, residents and local businesses the ability to opt in. If the city learns it needs to move forward with purchasing a mitigation site, then developers would be able to buy into that through a credit-to-acre system.
“Rather than having a piecemeal approach where every individual resident and developer would be coming up with their own plan individually with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, this is the city stepping in and saying, ‘hey, we’ll help and develop a coordinated comprehensive approach that’s good for economic development and good for the environment, and good for the endangered species,” City Administrator Michael Grayum said.
Similar plans have been developed by Tumwater and Thurston County, but it’s not apples to apples, Grayum said, especially when you’re dealing with different subspecies of pocket gopher.
Yelm’s prime pocket gopher soil has stunted development within the city and Nisqually Valley since its listing, with developers subject to federal and county inspections prior to construction. It’s an expensive and long process and, alongside the city’s dwindling water rights availability, is an issue that’s been a barrier for small- to mid-size developers.
“That’ll be one of the first things out of the gate, is to narrow the scope to see,” what other species need protecting, Beck said. “We listed some others, but we don’t think we’re as impacted as Thurston County or Tumwater with some of the other prairie species.”
Thurston County is currently in its fourth and likely final review with the federal government on its habitat conservation plan.
That draft was submitted in July 2020, and it’s currently under review under the National Environmental Policy Act through the end of the year, said Jennifer Davis, community planning manager at Thurston County’s Community Planning and Economic Development Department.
Davis said the county currently has enough land through different channels to meet the demand of mitigation acres if they were to get the OK within the next year on their conservation plan, though the need could be up to 5,216 acres over 30 years time.
“We don’t have anything solid in place right now, but we are actively examining our information and considering our opportunities to acquire land,” Davis said, noting that land acquisition wouldn’t happen all at once.
Mike Matlock, community development director with the city of Tumwater, said they’re four years into their habitat conservation plan and are close to having a finished draft for federal NEPA and SEPA review, which might take another year.
“The idea is that it will allow development to proceed according to our comprehensive plan and at the same time will enhance the habitats and the species,” Matlock said.
Similar to Yelm, Tumwater was also considering hitching their wagon to the county’s planning efforts, but cities have determined it in their best interests to go with a more localized approach. Matlock said Tumwater has also worked on its plan with the Port of Olympia, which holds a great deal of land within the city limits and operates the Olympia Regional Airport.
Tumwater’s habitat conservation plan will include site protections for the streaked horned lark, Oregon spotted frog and the Olympia subspecies of Mazama pocket gopher, Matlock said.
“It’s just a lot of detailed work,” Matlock said of the process. “I think in the end, it’ll be worth it. But it’s taken longer than we would have hoped.”
Tumwater has already determined it will need around 1,000 acres of mitigation land to satisfy development for their 30-year incidental take permit.
Grayum and Beck say there’s plenty of interest within the Yelm business and developer communities to move forward quickly on this project. There are people whose projects have been held up by gopher soils and they don’t have the resources to hire a biologist, fund studies and submit a conservation plan to the federal government.
Beck compared Yelm’s effort to draft a habitat conservation plan to that of their holistic and comprehensive approach to a “gold-standard” water mitigation strategy that was in place prior to the Foster Decision.
“Same thing here. It’s the right thing to do from being a sustainable community, but it’s also the right thing to do for our business community,” Beck said.