Saving threatened Utah prairie dogs -- on private property

  • Cedar City, Utah, where urban development impacts Utah prairie dogs, whose diminished range overlaps with private land. The habitat credit exchange pays willing landowners to protect prairie dogs in order to mitigate development on habitat elsewhere.

    Brian Slobe
  • Prairie dogs excavate the fairway at Cedar Ridge Golf Course in Cedar City, Utah, where they are trapped and relocated to public lands. "We trapped 634 dogs last year, and I don't think you can tell," says Steve Carter, maintenance superintendent.

    Brian Slobe
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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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."