Search for Wyoming pocket gophers continues to update information
South Central Wyoming – One of three species of pocket gophers in Wyoming has come under much closer scrutiny over the last couple of years, following a petition to list the critter under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
After the ESA request for the Wyoming pocket gopher was made, it was discovered that the last real data collected on the small mammal, found in Sweetwater and Carbon counties between Rock Springs and Rawlins, comes from museum records and anecdotal reports from 30 years ago. Since then state and federal agencies along with consultants from the oil and gas industry have worked jointly to put together a more comprehensive set of data.
Along with the Wyoming species of pocket gopher, Wyoming also hosts Idaho and northern pocket gophers. Wyoming Natural Diversity Database lead zoologist Doug Keinath says that although the northern pocket gopher coincides with both the Wyoming and Idaho, those last two species don’t coexist.
“There are a lot of gophers out there, but they’re mostly northern pocket gophers,” says Keinath. “We haven’t found any Idahos and Wyomings together. Right now the Idahos seem to be found west of Green River, while the Wyomings are east.”
He continues, “Both of those species occur together with northerns, and the current hypothesis is the northerns competitively exclude Wyomings from the richer areas. They occur very close to each other, and there might be some conflict between them.”
He says there may be a similar scenario amongst the gopher species as wolves and coyotes. “The wolves force out coyotes because they’re bigger and more dominant, and there might be the same dynamic between northern and Wyoming pocket gophers.”
He adds pocket gophers are very territorial and will aggressively defend their territories, “But all that is hypothesis at this point.”
All the hypotheses surrounding the Wyoming pocket gopher are what have spurred the cooperative effort in funding and data collection over the last two summers. Besides going out in the field and counting animals, Keinath says biologists have also taken hair from the tips of the gophers’ tails for genetic sampling.
“With the genetic samples we want to confirm that Wyoming pocket gophers are their own species – that hasn’t been completely resolved yet,” he says. “It could be that some of the gophers we think are Wyoming turn out to actually be small, light northerns. If it turns out some Wyomings are actually odd-looking northerns, the Wyomings may be less abundant than we think.”
Preliminary data shows more Wyoming pocket gophers on the range than previously thought. The research also tentatively shows a slightly broader range for the gophers, as some have been found north of I-80, where they were previously thought to only exist south of the interstate.
Of impacts to multiple use on land occupied by the Wyoming species, Keinath says he expects no impact to grazing and minimal impact to oil and gas development.
“Ranching and grazing seems completely compatible with the gophers, particularly because we’ve found the Wyoming species in the higher, dryer rocky areas that aren’t very productive grazing land, anyway,” he says.
Of the energy industry, he says he doesn’t expect the gopher to prevent, but shift development on a small, very local level, such as to prevent a well pad from going directly over gopher tunnels.
“We’re just finishing up the field season,” says Keinath of the first week of October. “By this winter we’ll know a whole lot more and have better guidance for all sorts of the folks who are interested in the gophers.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Bob Oakleaf says, “There’s a lot more work that needs to be done before the habitat question can be answered. There was a lot of speculation at first, and the more information we get, the more we realize more information is needed.”
A Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) review of the petition seeking to list the Wyoming pocket gopher on the ESA will undertake a more thorough review of the species to determine whether to propose adding the animal to the list of threatened or endangered species.
“We haven’t finished the analysis to fully understand what the threats are, and there is no decision at this point in time,” says FWS biologist Pat Deibert. “We really do need this information being gathered, and we’re required by statute to submit our finding – whatever it may be – to the Federal Register by next April.”
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.