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New program will help Utah prairie dogs, land owners

Published January 11, 2012 12:15 am

Preservation • Money paid for "credits" will be used to buy conservation easements.
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Cedar City • The newest strategy for saving the threatened Utah prairie dog was unveiled Monday in Cedar City, but some property owners say they're still getting a raw deal.

Officials hope the new Utah Prairie Dog Habitat Credit Exchange and Safe Harbor program, together with other ongoing efforts, will help preserve the animals while making life easier for land owners.

The new program will allow property owners, including developers, to purchase "credits" for up to 40 acres. That money will be used to buy conservation easements from farmers and ranchers to protect land where the critters already exist.

The number of annual credits available for the program could vary from zero to 600 depending on the number of animals, acreage, habitat location and quality as determined through surveys.

Three species of rare prairie dogs live in Utah, including the Utah prairie dog, which is listed as a threatened species and is found in Sevier, Garfield, Piute, Wayne and Iron counties. Seventy percent of the population is in Iron County. Federal regulations hamper development in areas where the rodents live.

Erica Wightman, a private contractor hired to run the new program, said it will allow a developer to purchase the credits and then develop the land — or not — in perpetuity.

The county's existing Habitat Protection Plan requires developers to obtain one of a limited number of "take" permits and then pay $1,000 per acre to have the rodents relocated to protected preserves. Once the creatures are removed, a developer has up to 60 days to start development or lose the privilege. That plan will remain in place but is being revised.

The new program doesn't require any prairie dogs to be moved.

Wightman said the new system will streamline the process and allow developers to work at their own pace for the first time.

Once developers purchase the credits, incidental deaths, such as critters being run over by a dump truck, will be allowed. But intentionally killing the prairie dogs will still be illegal. Wightman said the cost of purchasing credits will vary depending on the population of prairie dogs on the land. The cost could range from $4,800 to $8,000 per acre.

She said the new process could help keep developers from avoiding areas like Cedar City because property would be unencumbered by restrictions forever.

"The benefits of the program are to open the avenue for development, create incentives for conservation and get the prairie dog delisted," said Wightman.

So far the organization has purchased two easements, one of them for $92,000 from a farmer in Sevier County with 219 acres, 80 of which will be protected.

Private landowner Bruce Hughes, who attended a Monday meeting outlining the program, said property owners are still being penalized financially for prairie dog mitigation.

Wightman agreed, but said without effort from all sides, including land owners, the prairie dog again could be listed as endangered, as it was from 1973 until 1984, when its status was upgraded to threatened. That would place even more restrictions on land use.

While he saw the logic of trying to keep prairie dogs off the endangered list, Hughes wasn't mollified.

"I think we [private landowners] are still getting the dirty end of the stick," he said.







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