A new program to pay farmers and ranchers to protect Utah prairie dogs on their land might help finally push the threatened animals off the endangered species list, according to organizers.
About $400,000 in federal funds will pay for a pilot program to buy conservation easements on private land with at least 20 prairie dogs on 40 acres. The landowner could still farm and ranch but not develop the land.
Developers elsewhere could then purchase credits to offset their effects on prime prairie dog habitat.
The prairie dogs in southern Utah have been federally protected since 1973. They have struggled to recover, partly because about 75 percent live on private land with few guaranteed protections, so they don't count toward the government's population goals.
The cinnamon-colored rodent has been a source of frustration for some locals in recent years, who say its protected status has hindered development and economic growth in one of state's fastest-growing areas.
Organizers of the new "credits exchange program" say it has the potential to boost protection on private land, increase prairie dog numbers and provide developers willing to pay extra with a way to build on certain land that already has prairie dogs.
"We decided we needed to have some way of making these little critters, instead of a liability, make them an asset," said Mark Petersen, environmental issues specialist with the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.
For voluntary landowners, that could mean getting paid to allow prairie dogs to remain on their property. The initial cash for the program likely will only cover one or two conservation easements. Credits purchased by developers could pay for others. The program could eventually fund itself, said Erica Wightman, who's helping coordinate the effort for local nonprofit councils associated with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The idea was modeled after a similar program in Fort Hood, Texas, to help a songbird called the golden-cheeked warbler around the military installation.
Environmental Defense Fund -- which was already working on another program to protect the prairie dog in southern Utah -- got a federal grant in 2007 to develop the credit exchange program. That eventually led to a $400,000 earmark to provide seed money for the pilot program.
Supporters said they've already seen interest from some locals. The first easements could be signed this spring.
"My sense is they're eager to have another option," said Ted Toombs, a regional director for Environmental Defense Fund who played a key role in pushing the idea forward.
The Utah prairie dog lives exclusively in southern Utah and is one of five prairie dogs species in North America.
In the 1920s there were about 95,000 Utah prairie dogs, according to rough estimates. But aggressive campaigns to eradicate them and their burrows from farms, ranches and other lands put a deep dent in the population. By the early 1970s, there were only about 3,000 left, according to federal estimates.
The population has been holding steady at about 10,000 during the last decade.
But threats remain, including drought, disease and continuing pressure to develop its habitat.
The credit exchange program could alleviate some of the pressure but not all, Toombs said.
"Obviously, we think it's pretty important but we have to be realistic about it," he said. "It won't remove all of the threats."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the midst of reworking its management plan for prairie dogs with an increased emphasis on preserving them on private land and less on efforts to relocate them to public land.