The Mazama Pocket Gopher
What is 8 inches long, lives underground and is a critical member of the South Sound Prairies?
It’s the Mazama pocket gopher, a state threatened species that plays an important role in the ecology of our South Sound prairies!
Meet the Mazama Pocket Gopher
Why is the Mazama Pocket Gopher important to the prairies?
- Pocket gophers tunnel through the prairie soil, spending the vast majority of their lives underground. They eat roots and bulbs, even pulling whole plants into their burrows.
- Their tunneling helps aerate the soil, turn the dirt and brings nutrients from the surface into the soil. The gopher’s digging creates open mounds of soil which are favored places for prairie wildflowers to germinate and flourish.
- A gopher’s abandoned tunnels provide homes for a wide-range of other animals, including salamanders, toads and other small denizens of the prairie. On Joint Base Lewis McChord biologists have followed large mature individuals of the declining western toad in old pocket gopher tunnels, the toads coming out only in the evening after summer rains.
But digging isn’t the only fascinating feature of the Mazama pocket gopher:
- Its lips can be closed behind their front incisor teeth, which the gophers use to help it burrow.
- Their soft, loose pelt enables the gophers to move backwards as it easily as it moves forward through the narrow tunnels.
- Each pocket gopher has two, fur-lined cheek pouches extending from the lower portion of its face to its shoulders. These pouches can be stuffed full of plant material, making it easy to transport its food. The pouches can be turned completely inside out when the gopher wants to deposit and store the food.
Conserving the Pocket Gopher
Conservation efforts are underway for the Mazama pocket gopher. They are protected in some conservation areas, such as Tenalquot Preserve of The Nature Conservancy and Scatter Creek Wildlife Area. Additionally, projects to establish new populations are underway by Washington Fish and Wildlife at Wolf Haven and West Rocky Prairie Wildlife Area. That said, populations are threatened with continuing development of their habitat, and even when left alone habitats can degrade due to invasion of pest plants, especially Scotch broom.
Recently, some landowners and private property rights groups have expressed the South Sound concerns about limiting development of pocket gopher habitat. As with many endangered species, these concerns can be minimized through a variety of proactive conservation strategies, some of which are already underway in the South Sound. Additional strategies, such as protection of additional gopher sites and development of an off-site mitigation program may be needed to maintain this interesting and important species in the fast growing South Sound area.
Distinguishing Pocket Gophers from Moles
This helpful card produced by the US Fish & Wildlife Service explains the differences between Mazama pocket gophers and moles, and the mounds they create.