SALT LAKE CITY — As part of an ongoing effort to preserve habitat for Utah prairie dogs yet offset their impacts to rural airports, 800 acres of school trust lands property will be sold to The Nature Conservancy.
The transaction, announced Tuesday, happened with Federal Aviation Administration dollars, with the agency planning to pay $800,000 to the Utah School & Institutional Trust Lands Administration.
In exchange, the conservancy will get 800 acres of prime prairie dog habitat on Johnson's Bench in Garfield County.
That habitat will be counted as part of the state's conservation efforts in light of any of the mitigation that needs to happen with the Utah prairie dog at rural airports in Cedar City, Parowan and Wayne County.
Those airports have had a number of maintenance issues and public safety concerns due to damage caused by the Utah prairie dog, which is a protected species under the Endangered Species Act.
The sale is supported by Garfield, Iron and Wayne counties, in addition to the local airports.
“The mitigation moneys paid by the FAA and the local communities have now provided these airports the ability to secure their safety for the future, as well as at present," said Alma Adams, Iron County commissioner.
Because the 800 acres is beyond what is necessary to offset the mitigation that happens at the trio of airports, SITLA will receive 1,000 mitigation credits. The mitigation credits can be used on SITLA land or they can be sold to landowners, developers, utilities or any other group building on or using prairie dog habitat.
Laura Ronin, deputy field supervisor with the Utah field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the transaction is the result of a cooperative effort of multiple agencies and teams working together.
"This transaction and this type of partnership is truly what are needed to move the Utah prairie dog toward recovery,” Ronin said.
She added that the Johnson's Bench property is critical, occupied habitat for the Utah prairie dog and will serve as a "bridge" or connection to other prairie dog populations in adjacent areas.
Kim Chisty, deputy director of the school trust lands administration, said the transaction has been in the works for about two years. The property, which is about three miles west of Ruby's Inn in Garfield County, had only been used for a limited amount of grazing, he added.
Because of the presence of prairie dogs on the property, Christy said the agency was limited in what type of activities could occur there, and the property was largely viewed as a "non-performing" asset.
"This was a great opportunity" for the agency to generate revenue, which is then deposited in a fund for distribution to public schools, he added.