Politics & Policy

Save the Sand-Dune Lizard?

The Fish and Wildlife Service has a big decision to make.

‘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.

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.


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