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
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • 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...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...