Endangered frogs no match for planned dynamite blast next Wednesday

Hopkins Drainage Ditch District #2 has warned neighbors that it plans to clear plugged area

This 55-second video shows what McCallum Rock Drilling calls its 2021 highlights; they are the contractor for the Hopkins Drainage Ditch #2 project to remove a grass plug in a conservation area near Tumwater.
Video via YouTube - McCallum Rock Drilling March 2021 Blasting Highlight Reel
Posted

There's a little-known creek that goes by at least two names in Thurston County, Hopkins Drainage Ditch and Salmon Creek. The little-known Hopkins Drainage Ditch District #2 (HDDD) is the government entity in charge of keeping the water flowing.

The largely man-made creek feeds west into the Black River but before water gets there it's clogged up by a "grass plug" that measures about 60 feet long by 12 feet wide, and two to four feet deep, according to Mat Jackmond, a commissioner of Hopkins Drainage Ditch District #2. The location is about 1.4 miles north of an entrance to Millersylvania State Park. 

"It is basically where a bunch of grass got pushed down into the ditch and it decided to grow across the ditch in one of the wettest swampiest areas of the ditch, Jackmond told The JOLT, adding, "In fact, the area right around it is basically a bog."

The grass plug "is not fully obstructing the ditch but it's causing flows to be less than they should," he said. The challenge faced by the ditch district is clearing the plug before the rainy season. Flooding along Salmon Creek/Hopkins Ditch would flood homes and agricultural land, not to mention the conservation land on which the plug sits.

But the area of concern is surrounded by hundreds of feet of swamp, Jackmond says.

The unconventional solution to clear it is causing Thurston County and at least one conservation organization to raise their hands to stop it.

A closeup of the river that shows the area of the swamp.

The solution and the problem

The solution? Blasting it out with dynamite. The district has contracted with McCallum Rock Drilling, based in Chehalis to blast away the grass plug in a controlled explosion to be conducted next Wednesday. See video, above.

The problem? Oregon Spotted Frogs, an endangered species, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and a threatened species according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS).

The neighbors have been notified about the impending blast, but the Oregon Spotted Frogs and Mazama Pocket Gophers, both known to be present in the area, have not.

The land where the grass plug sits is on property purchased by Century Communities as part of a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). Before the developers of The Preserve neighborhood could put a shovel in the ground, they purchased the 51-acres off of Tilley Road as a mitigation parcel, as part of the HCP. This way they could develop land about three miles away, just west of Old Highway 99, into The Preserve.

This HCP land is being managed by the Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM), a California-based nonprofit habitat conservation organization, under a contract with Century Communities, according to Sanders Freed, CNLM's Northwest Preserve/Restoration Manager.

Freed explained that the HCP, granted by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, allowed Century Communities what’s called a “takings permit” to develop housing that would disrupt Mazama Pocket Gopher habitat. Turned out that the gophers were also living on the Tilley Road property, so Century Communities bought it to swap for the rights to build on Old Highway 99 at 93rd Avenue.

Gophers like dry land. About the land surrounding the grass plug, Jackmond says "if there are any Mazama Pocket Gophers there, they'd have to have snorkels."

"Hopkins Ditch, which is Salmon Creek drainage, also has Oregon Spotted Frogs," Freed told The JOLT. "It's actually the second largest known oviposition site for Oregon Spotted Frogs in the Black River. Next to … the Black River Refuge," he added. In other words, the area is a nursery for Oregon Spotted Frog eggs and tadpoles.

What are the legal issues?

"If they're going to blow up listed species, it is [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service's responsibility to deal with this issue. Both because they allowed the development to occur with this HCP and their job is to protect endangered species," Freed said. "Both Mazama Pocket Gopher and Oregon Spotted Frog are federally listed species," Freed continued, adding, "actually Department of Fish and Wildlife should be involved too because spotted frog is listed as a state species as well."

To remove the grass plug legally, the ditch district needs a Hydraulic Project Approval (HPA) from the WDFW. Joshua Cummings, director of the county's Community Planning and Economic Development department, responded by email to The JOLT that "the County is aware that a HPA has been provided by WDFW to the applicant." Neither WDFW nor FWS responded to our question seeking confirmation of this.

If a "takings permit" is included, such approval overrides the general restrictions against disrupting endangered species in their habitats.

While the WDFW issues HPA permits, the state is pointing its finger at the federal government. In a message, WDFW Communications Manager Eryn Couch told The JOLT that "It is not DFW that regulates the ESA and permits take of federally endangered and threatened species."

Jackmond said they have right of eminent domain to go onto the property and clear the ditch, and that they have environmental approval from the Washington Department of Agriculture. Agriculture wrote, "Ecology is the agency that issues SEPA guidance and exemptions" and included the link. Ecology disagreed, and stated that WDFW issues the permit and clarified that the project "needs to be inspected by a biologist."

An appeal is pending

Thurston County issued a statement today that reads, "Thurston County, Community Planning & Economic Development (CPED) has submitted an appeal to Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) with concerns that the proposed work does not align with federal law under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and that work not proceed until a formal analysis is provided to determine the potential impacts to critical habitat."

But the ditch must be cleared

"We looked at getting equipment in there. There's no way to get equipment in there. There's no way to get people in there that have a stable footing enough to do anything to make significant headway [to remove the grass plug," Jackmond said, adding, "So we've determined that this is the best route for the problem."

Comments

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  • PaulTheOak

    Umm... Dynamiting a "water of the State"? How can that get approval under State and Federal water quality laws? And why is it called "salmon creek" - are there protected salmon there?

    Saturday, September 3, 2022 Report this

  • SandiToeze

    In what sort of world does "we can't equipment in there" plus "there's no way to get people in there to make significant headway" equal **** IT UP and damn the endangered species? Has anyone thought about getting a responsible person from each agency together in a room and hashing it out face to face? Emails and text messages to individual agencies is just like everyone pointing a finger at all the others, but not really paying attention to the whole picture. Get it together, people. There are frogs and gophers facing death and destruction over your decisions.

    Saturday, September 3, 2022 Report this

  • SandiToeze

    and in what technology does the word blow get edited to asterisks?

    Saturday, September 3, 2022 Report this

  • FirstOtter

    This is so typical. Departments pointing the finger of blame at other agencies while saying "not my yob." This hot potato has gone from DOE to DFW to WSFW to WDA

    The ditch commissioner says the grass 'decided" to grow into a big plug? I want that kind of grass that makes decisions, so that I can train it to not grow so fast that I have to mow it every week.

    Blowing it up with dynamite? How about instead the ditch commissioner puts on a pair of muck boots and cut it out with a brush cutter? Bogs are natural areas, just like swamps and marshes.

    I don't remember the Dept. of Agriculture being staffed by environmental restoration specialists. It sounds to me as if Jackmond went looking for some desk pilot to say, sure, go ahead.

    But I'm not surprised that the WDFW is saying "I know Nothing". IN the past, WDFW has killed more creatures than it's preserved. Wolves, barred owls, cormorants, sea lions, -all are on their kill list. I really believe that the WDFW is really merely a tax payer subsidized extermination service for the wealthy ranchers.

    Yo, Jackmond. Dynamite is not the answer. What are you going to do if you start a wildfire, eh? Blame the frogs, right?

    Saturday, September 3, 2022 Report this

  • Miller19

    It’s some frogs and gophers that MIGHT be affected. Better shut civilization altogether.

    Saturday, September 3, 2022 Report this

  • Kruz81

    None of this is a surprise coming from these pseudo-governmental ditch people. These are after all the same morons that have not done any maintenance on their ditch for 30 years and have been trying to get everyone to foot the bill for it and have lately gone after the development down the street that might or might not have anything to do with their water problems. I am all for society running properly but also wonder if dynamiting this is the one and only option or if it's just the most exciting and cheapest one.

    Saturday, September 3, 2022 Report this

  • LarryJz

    Will we learn from the past?

    https://youtu.be/VVTN5iCXrkk

    Sunday, September 4, 2022 Report this

  • Miller19

    If y’all really want to be concerned about something, consider the 1150 high rise apartments planned for the area between Israel and Tumwater Blvd. I’m for adding new housing stock, but recreating The Montair in a quiet wooded area is dumb.

    Monday, September 5, 2022 Report this