With these concerns in mind, the USFWS delayed their final decision from December 15, 2011, to this June. Delays like this could become increasingly frequent for the USFWS. Until 2005, the agency received about 30 nominations (which can be submitted by anyone) for the endangered-species list a year. Since then, it has been overwhelmed by about 300 a year, meaning it often isn’t able to complete a full background study of each candidacy within its twelve-month statutory deadline. When this deadline passes, environmental conservation groups can then sue, making inclusion of the candidate species on the list part of the settlement.
In the case of the dunes sagebrush lizard, there have been no clear indications which way the USFWS will decide. For this reason, a group of protesters including several local and state legislators, county commissioners, and mayors attended the president’s energy speech in Maljamar, N.M., on March 21. The Texas Land Commission has also drawn up a conservation plan prescribing precautions that could preserve the lizard’s habitat while still allowing drilling to continue regardless of the USFWS’s decision. This plan, which is similar to one already in place in New Mexico, has the support of six oil companies but has not been accepted by the USFWS.
If the USFWS does decide to include the lizard on the list, Commissioner Patterson has said that he will appeal the decision in federal court. Texas’s Permanent School Fund, which helps to finance Texas public schools, owns mineral rights to about 30,000 acres of land considered to be part of the lizard’s habitat. An appeal would postpone the final verdict several months, if not years. But whichever way the decision eventually turns out, this decade- long dispute has already become a case of, as Patterson puts it, “reptile dysfunction.”
— Nash Keune is a Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the Franklin Center.