Southern Utah gets its own ‘Prairie Dog Czar’

Published: February 11, 2010 | Read Time: 4 minutes

Prairie dogs have long been a vexing issue in Iron and Garfield counties, but Southern Utah University is leading the way to help provide solutions with the hiring of the first coordinator of the Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Implementation Program (UPDRIP).

Elissa Black, who served until January 29 as community planner for Form Tomorrow, a Washington County non-profit organization devoted to assisting local municipalities to implement Vision Dixie planning principles, began work as Southern Utah’s new “prairie dog czar” on February 1.

As the first paid staff of the program, Black will begin by seeking to unify approximately 20 UPDRIP local, regional, state and federal partners in meeting the program’s goals, said Brian Cottam, associate director in SUU’s Office of Government Relations & Regional Services, which is hosting the program.

Black’s office is located in the College of Science; her salary and other program expenses are provided by the consortium of partners involved in the program, Cottam said.

“We’re extremely pleased to have hired a person of Elissa’s considerable experience and ability,” Cottam said. “We’re confident she will help us move forward in our efforts to recover the prairie dog according to the Endangered Species Act while allowing land-owners to develop their property as quickly as possible.”

The threatened Utah prairie dog has been protected by the Endangered Species Act since 1973, and may not be hunted or otherwise destroyed.

Iron and Garfield counties are included in the geographic areas identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the historic range of the Utah prairie dog.

Iron County Administrator Reed Erickson, chair of UPDRIP’s executive committee, said the partners have previously pursued their goals individually.

“We finally realized that we could never fix the problem alone,” he said.

Iron County land-owners are frequently hostile toward the prairie dog and have vowed to “get rid of them,” Erickson said.

“The attitude is, ‘If you want to protect them, come and get them,’” he said.

In the past, officials in the region have worked separately, but now, with the UPDRIP coordinator beginning work, progress will be improved, he said.

Cottam said the executive committee, led by SUU Government Relations and Regional Services, has been working since early 2009 to fill Black’s position.

“Elissa’s role is to lead the cooperative effort and keep it moving forward,” he said.

According to UPDRIP’s draft program document, the partners have two primary goals. The first is to recover the Utah prairie dog so that it no longer requires protection under the Endangered Species Act; the second is to allow property owners to develop lands historically inhabited by the prairie dog.

SUU’s involvement in the public-private consortium extends to in-kind resources, including office space, staff supervision and other amenities.

“It is great that the University has stepped in to offer the space and equipment,” Black said. “Without the university’s involvement, the program would not benefit as much from the valuable resources it offers, as well as the neutral setting to carry out the work.”

The College of Science has been involved since early in the program and will provide Black’s office space in the Science Center, said Robert Eves, dean of the College of Science.

Cottam said Eves has been “a great supporter” of UPDRIP. Without his and the College of Science’s participation, the university’s role would not approach the current level, he said.

“We want (Black) to interact with the faculty,” Eves said. “We hope it will allow research opportunities for faculty and also undergraduate research.”

Black said she loves the idea of students and faculty working on research to help the prairie dog.

Black earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies from Humboldt State University and a master’s degree in city and regional planning from California Polytechnic University.

Throughout her professional career, she has worked for various non-profit organizations focused on improving the health and well-being of people, assisting low-income populations, and preserving cultural resources.

Before returning to Utah, Black worked as a land-use planner with the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, a planning agency focused on regional transportation and land-use planning for California’s Central Coast.

Most recently, Black has served as community planner for Form Tomorrow, which encourages collaboration and exchange of resources between citizens and local, regional and state governments in partnership with Washington County and the Five County Association of Governments.

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