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Using incentives to save the prairie dogs

by Emily Washington on January 13, 2012

in Economic Policy, Environment, Property Rights

Growing up in Western Colorado, I was never aware that prairie dog populations were threatened. Frankly, I always considered them to be about one step up from rats. In fact though, the Utah prairie dog is an endangered species, causing challenges for developers in Iron County.

Until recently, landowners in Utah had to obtain permission to build on land that is considered prairie dog habitat in accordance with the Endangered Species Act. They would have to relocate the animals to a suitable new habitat, after which they would typically be allotted only a 60-day window in which to begin building, resulting in uncertain property rights and incentives to rush development. Now, developers can instead purchase Habitat Credits, or the right to build on current prairie dog habitats, from farmers and ranchers who own land suitable for prairie dogs.

The Associated Press reports:

The program works like a bank, allowing private landowners to sell “credits” if they own prairie dog habitat they’re willing to protect. Buyers who purchase those credits gain permission to develop other habitat areas on their own timeframes.

The number of credits up for purchase and the cost of the credits will vary depending on the population of prairie dogs on the land.

The arrangement would fulfill the Endangered Species Act requirement that bars destruction of a listed species’ habitat without developing new habitat.

Environmentalists are hopeful that this program will boost prairie dog populations enough to get them off of the endangered species list, and the policy change has made life easier for developers. Furthermore, this change is good for residents of Iron County, as reducing obstacles to development will result in an improved built environment.

This seemingly simple policy change illustrates the power of property rights. Assigning them in a way to better align incentives benefits everyone by allowing for improvements in land allocation.

  • Chad

    I LOVE seeing property rights as a substitute for outright regulation. This is the kind of creative problem solving environmentalists should strive to implement in more situations.

    • Emily Washington

      I couldn’t agree more. Improving property rights can make environmentalism a win-win rather than a win-lose effort.

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