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John Hollenhorst reporting Whoever heard of a Prairie Dog Bank? Deposit a few Prairie Dogs ... walk away with something you can sell.
Strange as that may sound, it's a radical new solution to something that's been driving people crazy in Cedar City for years.
Developers and public officials in Cedar City are frustrated because prairie dogs have tangled them up in red tape for years. Now, a deal is in the works that will invite the rodents to move into a sort of modular home.
Even people who don't like 'em will admit they're kind of cute. It's a particular species called the Utah Prairie Dog. Only about 10,000 are known to exist... a big share of them around Cedar City.
And wouldn't you just know it? Where they live is often right where people want to build homes and businesses.
But the rodents have strong federal protection.
Gene Roundy/ Chairman, Iron County Commission: "I LIKEN IT TO PROTECTING RATS IN NEW YORK CITY. I DON'T SEE ANY NEED FOR IT."
JOHN HOLLENHORST/ REPORTING: "IRONICALLY, THEY USED TO BE CONSIDERED A NUISANCE, TO BE SHOT ON SIGHT. AND AS RECENTLY AS THE LATE 1960'S FEDERAL OFFICIALS WERE POISONING THEM."
Keith Day/ Biologist, Utah Div. of Wildlife: "THEN AS TIME WENT ON, AND THE NATION DEVELOPED MORE OF AN ECOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE AND ECOLOGICAL SENSE, THEY REALIZED THERE IS A PLACE FOR EVERY ANIMAL OR A REASON FOR IT TO EXIST. THAT'S WHEN THESE PROTECTIONS CAME ON."
Development is not forbidden; builders can move prairie dogs out of the way. But there are strict limits. Just 100 prairie dogs can be moved this year. And developers have to fight each other for those 100 permits.
GENE ROUNDY/CHAIRMAN, IRON COUNTY COMMSSION: " FRANKLY, IT'S BEEN A LOT OF FRUSTRATION IN A LOT OF PEOPLE'S LIVES."
But now, a proposed solution... a new home for prairie dogs 80 miles away in Central Utah. State school trust land will be fenced off, improved as habitat, and new burrows will be created.
Kevin Carter/ Director of State Trust Lands: "WITH PLASTIC PIPE, THAT THE ANIMALS CAN USE AS KIND OF A MODULAR HOME, IF YOU WILL, FOR PRAIRIE DOGS. PRE-BUILT."
They'd probably transplant several hundred prairie dogs to the new digs. But that's money in the bank. The prairie dog bank.
KEVIN CARTER/DIRECTOR OF STATE TRUST LANDS: "WE'RE CREATING CREDITS IN ONE LOCATION, IN A BANK, THAT WE CAN EXPEND SOMEWHERE ELSE."
Trust Land administrators could use the credits to get permits wherever prairie dogs stand in the way of development. Each credit would allow the bulldozing of an equivalent amount of prairie dog habitat.
They could use the credits themselves to develop school trust land near Cedar City. Or they could sell the credits to builders on private land so THEY could remove prairie dogs. That should relieve pressure in Cedar City.
GENE ROUNDY/CHAIRMAN, IRON COUNTY COMMISSION: "THERE WILL ALWAYS BE FRUSTRATION WITH THE RED TAPE AND ALL THE ADDITIONAL STEPS AND PROCEDURES WE HAVE TO FOLLOW. BUT I DO BELIEVE THAT NOBODY WILL HAVE TO GO WITHOUT BUILDING IF THEY WANT TO BADLY ENOUGH."
Final agreements remain to be worked out between agencies. And officials say it wouldn't be a surprise if environmental groups challenge the arrangement.
But the concept of a so-called "mitigation bank" was actually developed by a major national environmental group. It's an experiment designed to reduce long-running conflicts over endangered species.