Saving threatened Utah prairie dogs -- on private property

by Nathan Rice

When Curt Bagley learned he could get paid for the prairie dogs digging up his land, he had a change of heart toward the varmints he'd grown up shooting. On his family's cattle ranch in Greenwich, Utah, they'd had to learn to live with the destructive rodents since 1973, when Utah prairie dogs were federally protected. "If I had my druthers, I wouldn't have 'em," Bagley says. "But they're here, so I have to work with 'em."

To Bagley and many other residents of southwest Utah, prairie dogs have been the bane of an otherwise peaceful existence. Listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, the diminutive rodents have been hit hard by urban growth and disease. Most of their remaining habitat lies on private land, where protections have slowed, and in some cases halted, development. They also punch holes in runways and tunnel into cemeteries, disturbing graves and enraging locals. That they can carry bubonic plague doesn't help relations either (though disease transmission to humans is rare).

But last year, Bagley signed the papers to permanently set aside 80 valley-bottom acres for the much-maligned animals. After all, dealing with "prairie rats" isn't that far from his past job as a high school security guard: "I'm used to working with pests," he notes with an arid humor. He's the second landowner to enroll in the Utah Prairie Dog Habitat Credit Exchange Program -- a market-based approach to private-land conservation that could help change how landowners view endangered species, while also allowing an avenue for development. Each protected parcel is assigned habitat credits, which are then sold to developers to mitigate building on prairie dog habitat elsewhere. A third property should be finalized in August.

"This is a way of including landowners in the conservation solution," says Ted Toombs, regional director of Environmental Defense Fund's Center for Conservation Incentives, who helped develop the program with the state's Farm Bureau Federation. "Rather than landowners looking at prairie dogs as simply a liability, we want to turn prairie dogs into an asset." If successful, the credit exchange model might help turn private land into a new ark for endangered species.

Given all the trouble, it's not surprising that prairie dog disdain runs high across the West. "They're like a small wolf in a way," says Laura Romin, deputy field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Utah. "They can be very controversial." The agency is trying to help local residents deal with them. Starting in September, it will allow killing of prairie dogs around airports and sacred sites after prairie-dog-proof fencing has been installed. Before killing, biologists will try to trap and relocate dogs to public land, a strategy similar to four decades of recovery efforts: Get them out of the way.

But with at least 70 percent of remaining Utah prairie dogs on private land, simply relocating them likely won't bring back the species. The overall population has gradually increased in the last 35 years; the official goal is at least 6,000 adult dogs spread across three recovery areas. Creating new colonies is difficult, however: Higher and drier public lands must often be cleared of sagebrush to create prairie dog habitat where it wasn't before. Badgers and other predators (including people) take a toll, and the plague has wiped out whole colonies. Artificial burrows and disease control have helped more recent efforts, but since the relocation program began in the early 1970s, some 25,000 prairie dogs have been moved to public land; of those, perhaps 3,000 adults persist today.

"That's not recovery," says Taylor Jones, endangered species advocate for WildEarth Guardians, an advocacy group that, in 2007, unsuccessfully sued Fish and Wildlife to uplist the species from "threatened" to "endangered." "The best thing to do is let them live in peace where they are managing to survive." It's a challenge that has dogged the Endangered Species Act since its inception, with about half of listed species having over 80 percent of their habitat on private land. Under a recently updated recovery plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service stresses protecting Utah prairie dogs on private property, too. The next step is to convince landowners it's a good idea.

The credit exchange seeks to do just that in seven Utah counties -- while giving new housing and construction projects a way to proceed on prairie dog habitat. The pilot program, which protected its first parcel last year, pays landowners like Bagley between $1,000 and $2,000 per acre upfront to set aside at least 40 acres of land inhabited by at least 20 prairie dogs. Farming and grazing can continue as long as the dogs aren't harmed. "We're trying to create an incentive for conservation," says program coordinator Erica Wightman. The check is written by the nonprofit Panoramaland Resource Conservation and Development Council, with funding from the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service.

For each property enrolled in the program, Wightman calculates how many habitat credits it's worth, based on the number of prairie dogs and the quality of habitat. Those credits are then sold to people who want to build on prairie dog habitat, in order to mitigate the project's impact -- a requirement under the Endangered Species Act -- and to get county building permits. Wightman determines how many credits must be purchased for each project based on factors such as how many dogs and acres might be affected.

It's a model similar to conservation banking, in which landowners protect endangered species habitat on their own property and then sell credits to offset building elsewhere. The credit exchange goes further by acting as broker and removing the permitting delays and financial risk involved in setting up one's own bank, making it easier for landowners to participate. Biologists and farm experts then consult landowners on how to manage both dogs and land, and Wightman inspects to ensure it's done right. Their assistance helps landowners navigate the complex maze of regulations.

Another advantage of the credit exchange model is its landscape-scale approach to habitat protection, which targets parcels near existing habitat to help reconnect the prairie dog's range. The goal is to go beyond the usual mitigation yardstick of "no net loss" of habitat by protecting more land and more dogs than are actually impacted by building. "This offers a mitigation approach that we think is more efficient, more effective, and gets more conservation per dollar than any other option," says Toombs.

Credits aren't cheap, though: They cost between $4,800 and $8,000 to offset impacts to one acre of habitat, compared to the "incidental take" permits offered by Iron County, which cost only $1,000 per acre. While less expensive, the county's system has a limited number of permits, requires construction to begin within 90 days, and allows the "take" of only 10 prairie dogs per permit. Those restrictions caused a major backlog in building permits during the housing boom, and stopped some projects altogether. In contrast, the more flexible habitat credits can be used anytime, and any number can be bought. They also ensure that prairie dogs are protected before building starts. Wightman says she seeks the best habitat for the lowest cost in an effort to keep credit prices affordable.

Now, the program must show it can work in the marketplace. Having spent most of the federal seed money to pay landowners, Wightman is looking for buyers to move the program beyond the subsidized pilot stage to self-sufficiency. The slow housing market will likely keep developers from rushing in. But in February, she made her first sale of 68.75 credits to Garkane Energy for a transmission line project, allowing the electric utility to move forward, knowing permitting costs ahead of time. "It takes a lot of the guesswork out of it," says Bryant Shakespear, planning engineer for the company. In late May, 9.12 credits were sold to State Bank of Southern Utah for a commercial lot in Cedar City, the hotbed of prairie dog problems during the housing boom.

But deep-seated resistance to prairie dogs remains an obstacle. In 2010, the neighboring city of Enoch passed a rule outlawing conservation easements on private land, effectively shutting out the exchange. One developer called cash for credits "blood money." Many people see no reason to have to pay for what they call the federal government's prairie dogs.

"You don't get a lot of pats on the back," says Wightman. Still, she's convinced her program can help broker a peace between prairie dogs and people. "Sometimes you can't change that mindset. But you may be able to enlighten, and show that conservation and development can coexist."

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