Economic Incentives Can Save The Threatened Utah Prairie Dog

July 20, 2001

Environmental Defense released a report today, A Home on the Range, demonstrating how economic incentives can be used to protect the Utah prairie dog, the rarest of the four U.S. prairie dog species and one of the first animals listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The report finds that prairie dog conservation and cattle ranching need not be incompatible. In fact, both prairie dogs and ranchers can benefit from incentives like safe harbor agreements and a Habitat Reserve Program. Eventually these measures could help the other three prairie dog species, all of which are declining.

“For too long, ranchers and conservationists alike have assumed that prairie dog conservation and cattle ranching do not mix,” said Environmental Defense senior ecologist David Wilcove. “To the contrary, with the right set of incentives, habitat for prairie dogs can be restored while also benefiting ranchers.”

Until their listing in 1973, Utah prairie dogs were the target of a government-aided eradication campaign, as ranchers blamed them for forage loss on rangeland. Environmental Defense’s report, however, shows that cows and prairie dogs can co-exist.

Safe harbor agreements provide landowners with assurances that they will not face increased Endangered Species Act restrictions on the use of their land if they agree to protect and restore habitat for endangered species. Such agreements have been used successfully to restore privately owned lands for endangered species in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, and are under development in several other states.

Utah prairie dogs have also suffered extensively from habitat loss. To date, efforts on behalf of the Utah prairie dog have targeted federal lands and been unsuccessful in recovering the species. “Protecting the Utah prairie dog will require restoration and conservation of habitat found on private lands,” said Wilcove. “In particular, Utah prairie dogs can be protected by safe harbor agreements, which Environmental Defense helped pioneer to protect endangered species on private lands.”

The report also calls for the establishment of a Prairie Dog Habitat Reserve Program through the upcoming Farm Bill; legislation that establishes price support and conservation programs for the nation’s farmers.