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
 

Page 2

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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • PLANNING & BUILDING DIRECTOR
    Searching for candidates with a Bachelor's Degree in Planning, Community Development, or a related field with 7 years' experience in land use planning forums, including...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: