Efforts by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to secure state capital for a large-scale Mazama pocket gopher mitigation project in Thurston County appear to be on the funding bubble as budget talks begin to take shape in the state legislature.
A preliminary ranking of grant applications to the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program Critical Habitat Projects arm of the state Recreation and Conservation Board slots the South Sound Prairies project sixth out of 10 with a score of 36.57. Scores are calculated using a rubric with categories such as public benefit and support and ecological and biological characteristics.
Based on how state funds allocated to the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program are divided between sub-programs such as Critical Habitat Projects, the WWRP would need to receive about $85 million during the 2019-2021 funding cycle for the CHP arm to get the $12.5 million it would need to fund its top six applications. The WWRP received $80 million in the most recent capital budget, well above the $56 million it has averaged since 1990.
“We have asked the governor to fund the program at $130 million,” said Susan Zemek, a spokesperson for the state Recreation and Conservation Office. “So, we don’t know. The good news is that sometimes projects ahead of (South Sound Prairies) might fall through, or they might not spend as much money. Just because it doesn’t get funded doesn’t mean it’s a dead project.”
The grant request for $3 million would be put towards the purchase of 900 acres on the Alpacas of America farm south of Tenino.
The 1,700 acre property has been listed for by owner William Barnett with a price tag of $15 million. Thurston County, the city of Tenino and others are expected to explore financial partnerships with WDFW to help purchase and manage the land for the purpose of crafting a secure habitat for the pocket gophers while using the land as a mitigation credit land bank in line with the Endangered Species Act.
Thurston County and the city of Tenino submitted letters in support of the grant application when it was filed this summer. Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards said Thursday that a partnership between the state and Board of County Commissioners was dependent on if the grant received funding.
Edwards has long been frustrated with the impact the pocket gophers have on the finances of county residents and the way in which property development is limited by the presence of gophers.
“We want to partner up with anyone who can help us accomplish our goal to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act,” Edwards said. “It has nothing to do with whether or not I agree with the listing or if it’s valid or not, it’s just reality. We’re kind of in a box where we need to figure out a way to help the citizens of the county so they can continue their activities while reducing the mitigation costs of doing so.”
Nothing is likely to be decided regarding the South Sounds Prairies plan until the 2019-2021 state capital budget begins to take shape.
Governor Jay Inslee must propose the next biennial budget in December prior to the regular legislative session that begins in January. The current budget runs through June 30.
There are other state and federal sources to which proponents of the project could turn to for funding, though most state entities are already closed off to new grant applications for the upcoming biennium.
Edwards said there’s a federal Department of Agriculture program called the Natural Resources Conservation Service that might be worth looking into.
“We have to do the best job we can at a price that hopefully the citizens in Thurston County can afford,” Edwards said. “Buying land for mitigation in bulk could save money that could be put towards things like salmon enhancement. … if this thing goes through, you can bet they’ll try to implement it in Lewis County and elsewhere.”