The Wyoming pocket gopher, a small mammal found only in Wyoming’s Red Desert, is stirring up a big controversy as the subject of a recent Endangered Species Act petition. (Courtesy Wyoming Natural Diversity Database)

In the remote corners of Wyoming’s Red Desert, in a landscape crowded with energy development, a small rodent weighing less than 3 ounces makes it home. The Red Desert’s saltbush habitat is the only place in the world that Wyoming pocket gophers live.

WildEarth Guardians worries the only way the species will survive is to protect it and its habitat under the Endangered Species Act.

The conservation group petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service again last week to list the rare rodent. The service denied a 2007 petition announcing in 2010 that it had studied potential threats to the gopher, including energy development, and found disturbances do not always adversely affect pocket gopher species and, in some cases, have benefited species.

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Therefore, the impact of energy development on Wyoming pocket gophers cannot be determined based on the best existing scientific evidence,” an agency press release said.

Several studies conducted since show the Wyoming pocket gopher is among the state’s most sensitive species to energy development, even more so than the sage grouse or black-footed ferret, said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with WildEarth Guardians.

Little is known about the animal, which is the only mammal endemic or unique to Wyoming, said Nichole Bjornlie, non-game mammal biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“But it’s definitely a species on our radar,” she said.

3-ounce mammals that live underground in remote locations are difficult to count. (Courtesy Wyoming Natural Diversity Database)
Three-ounce mammals that live underground in remote locations are difficult to count. (Courtesy Wyoming Natural Diversity Database)

The gopher is a burrowing animal, making it difficult to get a population count, Bjornlie said. According to WildEarth Guardians only 79 have been recorded.

Every five to seven years Wyoming Game and Fish revises its state wildlife action plan identifying species of greatest conservation need. The gopher, along with about 50 other mammals, was on the 2010 list. It’s also listed in the current state plan, which is still under revision, she said.

Game and Fish rated Wyoming pocket gophers as a three on their conservation priority scale. The scale runs from one to four with one representing the greatest conservation need. There isn’t enough time, money or personnel to study every animal on the list, Bjornlie said.

Rare species are barometers of ecosystem health, Molvar said. The gophers are also “ecosystem engineers,” digging up and aerating soil for plants.

Some of the pocket gophers’ habitat may gain protections through efforts to preserve greater sage grouse territory. But most of the small mammal’s land that is in the crosshairs of development falls outside of the areas targeted for conservation, Molvar said. The gophers live in colonies as small as an acre, scattered in the sagebrush. A single well pad could obliterate  an entire colony.

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Genetically isolated due to habitat fragmentation, the species is already disappearing from places it once inhabited and is at risk for extinction, Molvar said. A small fire could wipe out the population if the animals couldn’t easily move across the landscape because of development.

“The protections of the Endangered Species Act are the Wyoming pocket gopher’s best hope for survival,” Molvar said.

Petitions for protecting animals under the Endangered Species Act are common, said Mark Sattelberg with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming. WildEarth Guardians asks the service to look at least one species a year, he said.

The service reviews petitions for 90 days. If it decides a listing might be warranted, it then starts a year-long information-gathering process. Following that evaluation the federal agency could recommend that listing is unnecessary, warranted, or warranted but precluded by other factors such as limited resources and species of higher concern.

“If this decision is made based on the science, there is little question the Wyoming pocket gopher will be listed,” Molvar said. “We fully expect to have to watchdog this petition every step of the way to make sure political shenanigans don’t interfere with science-based decision making if this species is going to get the protections it deserves.”

An endangered species designation would likely protect swaths of habitat in the Red Desert and limit energy development.

Yet Molvar insists the petition isn’t a roundabout way to halt development in the area.

“The Wyoming pocket gopher petition effort is all about protecting one very rare creature from extinction,” he said. “To the extent that its protection leads to protections for the land and other species, it’s a side benefit.”

Little is known about the Wyoming pocket gopher which is the only mammal endemic to Wyoming. (Courtesy Wyoming Natural Diversity Database)
Little is known about the Wyoming pocket gopher which is the only mammal endemic to Wyoming. (Courtesy Wyoming Natural Diversity Database)
  • Correction – This story, published Apr. 15 2016 originally misattributed the 2007 ESA listing petition to Wild Earth Guardians.

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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