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Building trust for prairie dogs: large-scale approach protects habitats and helps communities.


A bad first impression is tough to overcome. Some private landowners in southern Utah say they can't decide what's worse--having the Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens) on their property or having the federal government suggest how they should manage it.

Because the best remaining habitat for this threatened species is on private lands, recovery will depend on landowner cooperation. But finding willing landowners may be easier said than done.

"The sentiment is that we are the big bad regulators," explains Jennifer Fox, an ecologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Landowners worry that we're going to nail them if there is any 'incidental take,' or that we will somehow restrict them from carrying on their livelihoods or doing what they do to survive."

If that impression weren't bad enough, many ranchers and farmers in the area see Utah prairie dogs as nothing more than destructive pests that dig burrows hazardous to livestock and expensive haying equipment.

Not so, say biologists. While Utah prairie dog conservation remains controversial, the ecological importance of these animals is not. According to Fox, prairie dogs are recognized as keystone species that play a critical role in their ecosystem.

"Utah prairie dogs are an important prey species for a variety of other animals, such as badgers and raptors. They also help shape the vegetation by foraging, and their burrow systems can be used as shelter for animals like burrowing owls and pygmy rabbits."

It's true that Utah prairie dogs may never be the most popular critters, but the Service is determined to find solutions to help communities in southern Utah embrace this species.

"People tend only to focus on the negative aspects of having the species on their land," says Fox. "The best thing to do is to try and approach landowners in a way that shows them how having this species on their property can actually benefit them."

The Service, with the support of several conservation organizations like the local Resource Conservation and Development Councils, has developed two programs to help landowners see how opening their gates to Utah prairie dogs can be worthwhile.

The Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA) Program and Habitat Credit Exchange Program (HCEP) encourage landowners to participate in the restoration of threatened and endangered species by offering a suite of incentive-based tools and regulatory assurances.

Safe Harbor Agreements

The objective of the SHA approach is to provide incentives for private landowners to restore and manage habitat, provide regulatory assurances to private landowners under the Endangered Species Act, and ultimately recover and delist the species.

Aside from these motivations, landowners may realize another benefit.

"We are actually fortunate with the Utah prairie dog in that the landscape they rely on is similar to what cows and other livestock like," says Fox. "So if a landowner does things to improve the habitat for the prairie dog, it simultaneously helps improve the grazing conditions for their livestock."

Verl Bagley a landowner who has enrolled 70 acres (28 hectares) in an SHA, can attest to this.

"It's a win-win situation," he says. "I win by getting some rangeland improved and the prairie dog wins by gaining habitat."

Bagley was one of the first landowners in Utah to take part in the Safe Harbor program. He agreed to convert alfalfa to pasture and spot-seed fallow areas with a seed mixture compatible with habitat needs for the Utah prairie dog. Bagley also agreed to install fencing to help improve his grazing management.

While Bagley is quick to note the benefits, he is just as willing to point out the program's flaws. He says that several landowners he recruited lost interest during the long and drawn out process of organizing an agreement. "Once the interest is gone, it's hard to pick back up."

At the time, completing an individual SHA was a process that could to take up to one year or more. To make it easier on landowners, the Service entered into a programmatic SHA with the Panoramaland Resource Conservation and Development Area (a group comprised of six Utah counties) last summer. This "umbrella" agreement encompasses the Utah prairie dog's entire range. It allows multiple property owners to sign onto the agreement by means of certificates of inclusion, which makes the process quicker and easier.

"I wouldn't recommend everyone with a patch of land run out and sign onto this sort of thing," says Bagley. "But I do encourage landowners to learn about the program, both the benefits and consequences, to see if it is something they would be interested in."

While an SHA may not be right for everyone, Bagley tells those in his area to explore other avenues to help push the Utah prairie dog towards recovery.

"It's important to do what we can as a community to see the species is successfully recovered," said Bagley.

Habitat Credit Exchange Program

Another option available to landowners is the Utah prairie dog HCEP. Like the Safe Harbor program, the HCEP is designed to help win support for species conservation on private lands.

According to Erica Wightman, the HCEP coordinator, this program will provide an avenue for private land development while conserving important Utah prairie dog habitat in ways that benefits both landowners and species recovery.

Wightman says the HCEP will mirror a market-based brokerage system, connecting developers (credit buyers) who need to mitigate the loss of Utah prairie dog with private landowners (credit sellers) willing to preserve the species on their properties.


This program is still in its pilot stage, but according to Wightman, the HCEP will start purchasing habitat credits from private landowners with viable Utah prairie dog colonies on their property and selling them to developers this summer.

The Panoramaland and Color Country Resource Conservation and Development Councils oversee the program and determine which land is best suited for inclusion.

According to Wightman, eligible landowners must have at least 40 acres (16 ha) and a spring count of 20 adult Utah prairie dogs to participate. But the program isn't just looking for land with high quality habitat. Rather, it's looking for landowners interested in long-term commitments to conservation.

"It's important that management is ongoing," says Wightman. "We may establish an agreement with a landowner now, but we like to see that management will continue on down the road, even if the species is delisted."


It's still too early to see how these two programs are moving the needle towards recovery, but there's no question both the SHA and HCEP programs have generated a great deal of landowner interest in Utah prairie dog conservation. At the same time, perceptions that these animals are agricultural and development nightmares are beginning to decrease.

Members of the Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Team are encouraged to see this small turn around. With increased landowner support, the species stands a far better chance for recovery.

"Because landowners weren't too happy with them being on their land, translocation from private lands to public land was what we had focused on in the past," Fox says. "But we just can't rely on this any longer for the main source for protection and main focus for reaching recovery goals." Most Utah prairie dogs occur on private land, and until recently the success rate for trapping and translocation to public lands has not been promising.

"We are starting to see more success with translocation, but our main focus now is to work more closely with private landowners on their land," says Fox. "We feel pretty confident these programs will help us reach our recovery goals a lot faster than how we have been focusing things in the past."

What is a Safe Harbor Agreement?

"Safe Harbor Agreements" or SHAs are voluntary agreements that provide incentives for landowners to help recover endangered or threatened species.

What is the landowner's role?

The landowner agrees to manage the property in ways that contribute to the recovery of a listed species for a specified period of time. He or she works with the Service to develop the agreement and management plan.

What are the benefits?

For the landowner: The Service authorizes "incidental take" coverage for routine and ongoing activities on the property, which ensures that the landowner can continue with these activities despite the presence of listed species. (Incidental take is a term that means any unintentional take of a listed species--such as killing, capturing, collecting, or otherwise harming--that results from, but is not the purpose of, an otherwise lawful activity. For example, individuals of a listed species may be taken by permit during lawful timber management activities if the take is unintentional.)

The landowner also receives regulatory assurances that, at the end of the agreement, he or she can choose to alter or modify the property enrolled in the SHA and return it to its originally agreed-upon "baseline" conditions (even if this leads to incidental take). SHAs can be renewed by mutual agreement.

For the species: The species benefits from conservation activities on private lands that might not otherwise have taken place during period of the time specified in the agreement.

Who can participate?

Any non-federal property owner can participate in the Safe Harbor program. The owner can enroll the entire property in the SHA or just a portion of it.

Property owners can also enroll in an existing programmatic or "umbrella" SHA that may have already been designed for prospective participants in a region or even an entire state. Such programmatic SHAs are administered by a sponsoring state or local agency or some other entity.

It is important to emphasize the SHAs are authorized only when a net conservation benefit to a listed species will result from the landowner's stewardship.


Sarah Leon, a communications specialist with the Service's Endangered Species Program headquarters office in Arlington, Virginia, can be reached at sarah_ or 703-358-2229.
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Title Annotation:Safe Harbor Agreements
Author:Leon, Sarah
Publication:Endangered Species Bulletin
Geographic Code:1U8UT
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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