SALT LAKE CITY — A land transaction to benefit Utah prairie dogs and ultimately add money to a trust benefitting school children has now been finalized.
The School Institutional Trust Lands Administration sold 800 acres of its lands in Garfield County to The Nature Conservancy to secure protection of the prairie dog's habitat.
The funding for the habitat was made available by the Federal Aviation Administration to help offset improvements made to Cedar City, Parowan and Wayne County airports that negatively impacted the species, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and FAA reached an agreement to allow maintenance and development at the airports, which have had colonies of prairie dogs move in and cause damage.
SITLA had its own prairie dog issues, because its Johnson Bench property in Garfield County five miles northwest of Bryce Canyon National Park had colonies, severely limiting its ability to generate revenue through leases. SITLA sold that property to The Nature Conservancy, which now counts toward the recovery of the species.
“We’re pleased this sale benefits local cities and counties by completing mitigation requirements for their airports, as well as lending to potential delisting of this federally protected species,” said Kevin Carter, SITLA's executive director.
SITLA also gets 1,000 Utah prairie dog mitigation credits because the parcel it sold is larger than what was necessary for the mitigation agreement. The credits can be used on SITLA land or may be sold to land owners, developers, utilities, or others who want to build on or otherwise use prairie dog habitat.
Laura Romin, deputy field supervisor with the Utah field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the transaction happened through a cooperative effort of multiple agencies and teams working together.
"This project is about finding solutions that work for both people and nature."
She added that the Johnson's Bench property is important, occupied habitat for the Utah prairie dog and will serve as a "bridge" or connection to other prairie dog populations in adjacent areas.
For The Nature Conservancy, the project fits in with its pursuit of land acquisitions that protects habitat for the benefit of everyone.
“This project is about finding solutions that work for both people and nature,” said Elaine York, the conservancy’s West Desert regional director. “The conservancy is pleased to work with partners on this purchase, and take an important step toward recovery for the prairie dog, a native species whose survival affects all of us.”
The organization will now work to improve the prairie dog habitat on the parcel and pay property taxes to Garfield County. Because The Nature Conservancy now owns the property, the resident prairie dogs and their habitat are added to recovery goals.
Utah prairie dogs are found only in Utah — hence their name — and number less than 10,000 adults. They occupy less than 15 percent of their historic range, with threats that include development, plague outbreaks, poisoning and shooting.