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My view: Prairie dogs and property rights

By Noreen Walsh

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, March 29 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Iron County Commissioner Dave Miller recently expressed concern that protection of the federally listed Utah prairie dog infringes on private property rights. Commissioner Miller also expressed concern that the conservation partners involved in Utah prairie dog recovery are spending too much time in planning processes, and not enough effort in recovery implementation.

I am writing to provide information that clearly shows that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and our conservation partners are actively working to recover the federally threatened Utah prairie dog (Cynomys parvidens), through a wide array of ongoing, on-the-ground conservation actions. In addition, we continue to work with the local communities to minimize the impacts associated with the presence of Utah prairie dogs on private lands.

Utah prairie dogs prefer the same types of habitats that humans want to cultivate and develop — approximately 75 percent of Utah prairie dogs occur on private or other non-federal lands. As such, conflicts arise when humans want to use their private lands but may unintentionally kill or harm Utah prairie dogs. We have provided mechanisms that allow flexibility in management of listed species so that the impacts to private property owners are minimized.

As an example, we published revisions to a special rule, called a 4(d) rule, that allows landowners to "take," meaning translocate or kill, up to 10 percent of the rangewide population annually. This rule, which allows lethal take on agricultural lands throughout the species range, has been in place since 1984. After hearing how Utah prairie dogs damaged local airports and cemeteries, our 2012 4(d) rule revision now allows lethal take in areas where Utah prairie dogs create human safety issues (e.g., airports) or disturb the sanctity of human burial or cultural sites. We also provided substantial funding, labor and equipment to fence the Parowan airport and Paragonah cemeteries, allowing lethal take at these sites under our revised 4(d) rule.

In 2012, we revised the Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Plan. The revised Recovery Plan recommends a two-pronged approach to facilitate recovery of the Utah prairie dog — continuing conservation efforts on federal lands, and expanding conservation efforts on private or other non-federal lands. Because 75 percent of the species' populations occur on private or other non-federal lands, recovery of the species will occur more rapidly if we are able to protect some of these key populations.

We continue to work with our partners to protect some of these habitats. For example, in 2010, we completed a programmatic consultation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for impacts to Utah prairie dogs at the Cedar City, Parowan and Loa airports. As part of this consultation, the FAA committed to fund the purchase of important Utah prairie dog habitat. With the permission of the School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), we will purchase approximately 800 acres of Utah prairie dog habitat in Garfield County this spring. Protection of the SITLA parcel, using the FAA funds, will go a long way toward meeting our recovery goals of 5,000 acres of protected habitat in each recovery unit. Conservation and management of the Utah prairie dog is an ongoing challenge and remains a priority for us and our partners. The actions of the service and its partners have accomplished much toward the goal we share with people across the range of the Utah prairie dog: recovery of the species. Progress is being made, and could be made at an even more accelerated pace through the cooperative efforts of the existing Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Implementation Program.

Noreen Walsh is the regional director for the Mountain-Prairie Region for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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