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.

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