Mazama pocket gophers emerge

It’s spring and the Mazama pocket gophers are popping up, like this one spotted recently at DNR’s Meridian Seed Orchard, near Olympia.

Mazama pocket gopher
The Mazama pocket gopher lives only in the Pacific Northwest — from coastal Washington, through Oregon, and into north-central California.

Named after Mt. Mazama, the volcano that exploded 6,000 years ago to form Oregon’s Crater Lake, these little critters are among the smallest of the pocket gophers. The species declined in the south Puget Sound region as prairie habitats were lost and fragmented by development and other land use changes.

Adult Mazama pocket gopher
Adult Mazama pocket gophers measure 8 inches in length, including their 2½-inch tail.

Pocket gophers, including the Mazama, prefer areas with sandy loam soils where they serve several important functions in prairie ecosystems. For example, they may turn three to seven tons of soil per acre every year. Their extensive excavations affect soil structure and chemistry, while their food caches and latrines enrich soil helping many plants to grow. Gophers also affect the growth of vegetation in prairie areas by eating plant roots and above-ground plant parts.

Mazama pocket gophers also are an important prey species for many predators, including hawks, owls, coyotes, and weasels. Their burrows provide retreats for many salamanders, frogs, lizards, small mammals and invertebrates. Learn more about the current protections for this species and see a map of its known habitat in Pierce and Thurston counties in this Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife publication .

The largest remaining populations Mazama pocket gophers can be found in Thurston County where 1,607 acres have been designated as special habitat, including parts of JointBase Lewis-McChord. They also can be found in Mason and Clallam counties, including Olympic National Park. In April 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed four subspecies of Mazama pocket gophers in Thurston and Pierce Counties as Threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. It also is a state-listed Threatened species.