This article will run in the summer issue of Dickinson Magazine.
You’ve probably seen southern Utah in the movies. Sprawling rock formations like the Delicate Arch or Monument Valley loom over a sublime arid landscape. Yet away from these higher, drier environs, down in the valleys where the rivers run to the soil, the alfalfa farmers and the prairie dogs have long been at war. Nathanael Brown ’01 has spent the past four years finding ways to forge a truce between the dogs and farmers, first as a land manager and now as an ecologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Services.
In Utah, prairie dogs have long been an umbrella species—if preserved, they will sustain many of the other species in their habitat. Prairie dogs also have been the bane of farmers, Brown explains. Both alfalfa and the dogs thrive in the wet, low-lying valleys, and with 75 percent of prairie dogs living on private lands without guaranteed federal protection, this pivotal species became listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“The farmers can shoot the dogs with a special permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Brown explains. “But a lot of people don’t realize that by maintaining prairie dogs, they’re maintaining biodiversity, preserving the integrity of the landscape and the integrity of a cultural heritage. The people of southern Utah really love their heritage and lifestyle, but it can be hard to see how prairie dogs can ensure the whole system remains in check when they’re pests on your land.”
Even more threatening to the dogs and farmers is the potential for widespread development. After the population boom in southern California spilled into Las Vegas and later Utah, developers began offering million-dollar checks to farmers in return for dynastic lands, and these enticing offers threaten both local markets and land management. With Utah’s natural and cultural capital in jeopardy, the Division of Wildlife Resources had to make it increasingly enticing for farmers to retain their land, their lifestyle and this endangered species.
Under the new credits-exchange program that Brown helped to devise, farmers are paid to preserve the land and its resources, and developers purchase credits to offset their environmental impact.
“Farmers set aside 40 acres, which they can continue to farm, as a conservation easement and get paid for what has been traditionally been an encumbrance,” Brown explains. “As long as at least 20 dogs and 10 plant species are counted in the space, it can be rolled into a conservation unit, and farmers can finally receive real compensation for their support of these species. Even if the land is sold or exchanged in the future, those 40 acres will remain a green space.”
By monetizing Utah’s precious resources, developers feel the true costs of development; if they want to pave over prime valley property, they’ll have to pay for conservation projects.
The project brings together Utah’s stakeholders, according to the former biology major. These include “county commissioners, members of the state congress and other interested parties, because all members of the system are necessary for sustainability to be possible throughout ecological time,” Brown says.
“The liberal arts at Dickinson taught me to understand the interplay between parts of a system, whether it be the interested parties interacting at the table or the various species interacting with their environment,” Brown adds. “Some people just see the forest as the trees, but Dickinson taught me to step back and understand how to build this dynamic and volatile recovery program.”