‘Lizards don’t hire,” read one sign. “Leave lizards on the commercials,” read another. These were the sentiments of the 300 residents who attended the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard Rally in Midland, Texas, last April.
The attendees were protesting the candidacy of the dunes sagebrush lizard, also known as the sand-dune lizard, for inclusion on the endangered-species list. The three-inch lizard is a subspecies of the sagebrush lizard, from which it is estimated to have evolved about 15,000 years ago. It’s called a “habitat specialist” because it exclusively lives within the network of roots of the shinnery oak sand-dune system, which covers thousands of acres in West Texas and New Mexico. A particularly finicky animal, the dunes sagebrush lizard prefers areas with “medium sized” grains of sand.
Much of the lizard’s habitat covers the Permian Basin, a site that is rich in oil, gas, and minerals, and home to many cattle farms. Conservationists argue that the lizard should be put on the list to protect it from well and mine construction. Their opponents argue that, even if the environmental threats are legitimate (a big if), the fate of the lizard is unimportant compared with the 1,000 wells and 7 million barrels of oil and oil equivalent in the basin — it has the potential to be one of America’s most productive fields. According to Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas), putting the dunes sagebrush lizard on the list could halt oil and gas production for two to five years, threatening 27,000 jobs.
The debate has been raging lately, but the lizard’s candidacy started in October of 2001. There has since been disagreement about the effect of putting the lizard on the list. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has argued that “the lizard declines or disappears in the face of oil and gas development or herbicide spraying, both of which are rampant in the species’ habitat.” However, a group of scientists at Texas Tech University “didn’t find a lot of evidence that those stressors” that are known to be harmful to the lizard, including hydrogen sulfide gas, petroleum hydrocarbon, and the herbicide Tebuthiuron,“were that pronounced in areas that would be considered high oil and natural gas production activity.” In fact, a survey done by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) found that 24 percent of the lizards live in shinnery-oak systems adjacent to existing pipelines.
Questions have also arisen concerning where the dunes sagebrush lizard lives. The studies detailing the known distribution of the animal are based on data from 1960. Surveys done in 2006 and 2007 have been criticized as being based on too little data. According to Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) procedure was to declare the lizard locally extinct if they couldn’t find a specimen within one hour at any individual site. Unsurprisingly, some of their data has been contradicted by later findings. For example, the USFWS concluded that the lizard was locally extinct in the Monahans Sandhills State Park in 2007. But then in 2010, the BLM study found that the lizard was still there.