Fueling Extinction: How Dirty Energy Drives Wildlife to the Brink

Wyoming Pocket Gopher

Wyoming Pocket GopherWyoming Pocket Gopher

Scientific Name: Thomomys clusius

Range: A small geographic range in Sweetwater and Carbon Counties, Wyoming, with a possible occurrence in northern Colorado. The pocket gopher is believed to be the only vertebrate animal that occurs exclusively in Wyoming.

Conservation Status: The Wyoming regional offices of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), USDA Forest Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, list the Wyoming pocket gopher as a species of management concern, but no legislative protections have been extended to this species.

Remaining Population: The Wyoming pocket gopher population is unknown but assumed to be very limited and to have a very restricted distribution. Since its discovery, in 1875, fewer than 40 individuals have been scientifically documented to exist.

Threat: Oil and gas development are considered a major threat. Urbanization and road and pipeline construction have fragmented and degraded remaining available habitat, as well as vegetative shifts caused by grazing, drought, and global climate change.

Background

As mysterious as they are secretive, pocket gophers are powerfully built mammals that are strongly adapted to life under the soil, with small ears, small eyes, fur-lined cheek pouches used to carry food, and very strong front limbs with long nails used for digging. They are important in soil development by incorporating organic matter into and aerating soil, thereby promoting water storage in soil during spring runoff.

Little information is known about the Wyoming pocket gopher. Assumptions on its distribution, ecology, and status are based on a handful of museum records and anecdotal reports from over 30 years ago, and there have been only recent systematic surveys for the Wyoming pocket gopher. Recent surveys failed to document gophers at several historic localities, leading to speculation of population declines. The possibility of decline appears quite serious, given that pocket gophers are vulnerable to disturbance due to their highly limited distribution, limited dispersal ability, and uncertain ecology.

Threats Faced By Fossil Fuel Development

In spite of the consensus among the government agencies that the pocket gopher is in need of conservation action, in 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determined that insufficient data on pocket gopher population trends is available. Therefore, FWS stated that there may be a possibility that their population density and range had remained unchanged, although they had no way of knowing whether it did or not. Accordingly, FWS determined that the pocket gopher does not warrant Endangered Species Act protection.

Since 2000, the Wyoming BLM has been issuing unprecedented numbers of oil and gas exploration and drilling permits in the range of the pocket gopher, sometimes without even mentioning the pocket gopher in the environmental impact statements generated in the process of issuing these permits. Once under way, these gas and oil field developments degrade pocket gopher habitat with the construction of roads, pipeline and power line infrastructures, and well pads. Activities ranging from exploration to extraction adversely impact this pocket gopher’s only known habitat. Developing gas and oil fields along with associated truck and other vehicle traffic, over time, results in compacted soil which fragments the gopher’s habitat, cutting off potential mating opportunities, potentially leading to harmful inbreeding.

Given the facts that fewer than 40 Wyoming pocket gophers are known to exist and that thousands of oil and gas wells are being planned that will disrupt this rarest of mammal’s only known range, the loss of one individual gopher is one loss too many.


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