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Fish & Wildlife Service set to decide whether Wyoming pocket gopher is an endangered species

April 8, 2010 | 10:37 pm

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Environmentalists and Wyoming's gas industry are waiting to find out whether a palm-size burrowing rodent that carries food in the fur-lined pouches of its cheeks will be federally protected.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to announce soon whether it will protect the Wyoming pocket gopher under the Endangered Species Act, potentially adding hurdles to the development of new wells.

The Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and Denver-based Center for Native Ecosystems petitioned to list the Wyoming pocket gopher as endangered in 2007, then sued over the issue. Fish and Wildlife faces a Saturday deadline to submit its finding following a settlement.

The Wyoming pocket gopher is one of several pocket gophers in the West but is believed to be the only mammal species that exists only in Wyoming.

"Gophers are a pretty positive part of the natural world. They aerate the soil and they are a prey species for a number of animals ranging from foxes to raptors," said Duane Short, wild species program director for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

The Wyoming pocket gopher occupies a small range in eastern Sweetwater and western Carbon counties in south-central Wyoming.

The same area has seen considerable gas drilling in recent years. Operators there include BP PLC, Williams Cos. Inc., Anadarko Petroleum Corp., Devon Energy Corp. and Double Eagle Petroleum Co., according to the Petroleum Assn. of Wyoming.

A threatened or endangered listing for the Wyoming pocket gopher probably would require more study ahead of new development, said association President Bruce Hinchey.

"It just requires more things you have to do, no matter what," Hinchey said Thursday.

On the other hand, Wyoming pocket gophers inhabit terrain more rugged than is suitable for gas wells or roads. That generally puts the gophers out of the way of industry, said association Vice President Cheryl Sorenson.

Only recently has research distinguished the Wyoming pocket gopher visually from the northern pocket gopher, a more common species found alongside the Wyoming pocket gopher.

That calls into question whether the Wyoming pocket gopher deserves protection, said Kent Holsinger, a Denver attorney representing energy companies operating in southern Wyoming.

"If the Wyoming pocket gopher is indistinguishable or virtually indistinguishable in the field from the northern pocket gopher, then shouldn't we be focusing our efforts on species that are truly unique?" Holsinger said.

Gas drilling in the Wyoming pocket gopher's habitat and the fact that scientists still don't know much about the rodent are both good reasons to protect the species, said Sophie Osborn, a biologist with the Lander-based Wyoming Outdoor Council.

For example, biologists still aren't sure whether road construction discourages Wyoming pocket gopher populations from spreading by getting in the way of the animals' burrows.

"There's just a lot of research that still needs to be conducted," she said.

Recent research has shown that the Wyoming pocket gopher has lighter-colored fur than other pocket gophers and white hair in their ears, said Pat Deibert, a Fish and Wildlife biologist in Cheyenne who worked on the Wyoming pocket gopher finding.

Meanwhile, the Wyoming pocket gopher has 46 pairs of chromosomes, compared with 48 for the northern pocket gopher and 58 for the Idaho pocket gopher. Deibert said such variation is extremely rare for mammals and shows beyond any doubt that the pocket gophers are distinct species.

-- Associated Press

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Video: A University of Wyoming staff member shares some background information about pocket gophers (of which there are multiple species, including the Wyoming pocket gopher). Credit: ONOW2008 via YouTube

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