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
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...