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Dunes Sagebrush Lizard

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dunes sagebrush lizard
photo courtesy Toby Hibbitts

A small, sandy-colored lizard you've probably never seen before could cost the schoolchildren of Texas hundreds of millions of dollars if the Federal government pushes forward with its plan to list it as endangered.

In December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the sand dune lizard as an endangered species. No mention is made in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposal on the potential impact to Texas school children if the sand dune lizard is listed as endangered.

The proposed listing was prompted after environmental groups - such as New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians - filed lawsuits against the federal government.

The sand dune lizard is about as big as your hand, with bright yellow eyes, a blunt-nose and a rounded head. Beneath its wide mouth, it has a faint yellow under-lip.

Formally known as the dunes sagebrush lizard, the sand dune lizard is a habitat specialist who can only live under the shade of the shrub-like shinnery oak that grow in isolated areas of southeast New Mexico and West Texas. A particularly picky lizard, it can only nest in dunes with medium-sized grains of sand.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the sand dune lizard separated from its cousin, the sagebrush lizard, about 15,000 years ago. The split occurred during the Pleistocene era when the area became warmer and dryer, creating the shinnery oak sand dune habitat the lizard depends on to survive.

This same habitat is also home to the hottest oil patch in Texas, the state that produces the most domestic oil and gas in the nation. Roads and oil well pads cut through the shinnery oak dune habitat, according to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The booming growth of oil and gas production in the sand dune lizard's limited habitat earns hundreds of millions of dollars for public education in Texas. Both the Permanent School Fund, which helps pay for the state's share of public education, and the Permanent University Fund, own valuable mineral rights in West Texas.

The Problem

Listing the sand dune lizard as an endangered species could devastate oil and gas production in the following counties:  Gaines, Andrews, Ward, Winkler and Crane in Texas, and Lea, Chaves, Eddy and Roosevelt in New Mexico.

The Permanent University Fund alone owns about 75,000 acres identified as lizard habitat. University officials estimated the listing could stop the drilling of approximately 1,000 oil and gas wells and eliminate the production of seven million barrels of oil   equivalent annually. The Permanent School Fund owns an estimated 30,000 acres of mineral rights in the area as well.

Bad science

Federal biologists depended on data from the 1960s to determine the lizard's known distribution. Surveys done in 2006 and 2007 focused on lizards in New Mexico. The lizards were only found in three locations in Texas.

Based on such scant evidence, it seems the federal government isn't even sure where the lizard actually is. The USFW proposal states an assumption that "sites where dunes sagebrush lizards were detected in either 2006 or 2007 likely comprise the last occupied habitat for dunes sagebrush lizards in Texas." According to USFW, the sand dune lizard was locally extinct at Monahans Sandhills State Park in 2007. But another survey in 2010 found the lizard was still there.

Other factors that may affect the lizard - such as, prolonged drought conditions, predation, disease and competition with other species - weren't even considered.

Contradictory evidence was also cited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  For example, the proposal states, "we believe pipelines pose a significant threat to the dunes sagebrush lizard..."  The federal proposal later states "twenty-four percent of the dunes sagebrush lizards found during BLM surveys were found along pipelines adjacent to shinnery oak dunes..." 

More research needs to be done before making such a far-reaching decision.  The survey data relied upon by USFWS is not adequate for the proposed listing.  A more recent and comprehensive survey of the species in Texas is warranted before a listing can be proposed.  A survey of the shinnery oak dune habitat in Andrews, Crane, Cochran, Edwards, Ward and Winkler counties should also occur concurrently to the species survey.

Finally, listing the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered is not the most effective method to conserve the species.

The federal government worked with energy companies and ranchers in New Mexico since 2008 to finalize conservation agreements that help protect the lizard without shutting down business.  Texas ranchers and energy companies were not afforded the same consideration by the federal government.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's rush to list the lizard as endangered will kill cooperative efforts between industry and environmentalists. By dismissing these cooperative efforts and prematurely listing the dunes sagebrush lizard as endangered, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will forego millions of dollars that could be utilized for species conservation.

The listing of the dunes sagebrush lizard will have a profoundly negative effect on private property owners, the oil and gas industry and public education in the State of Texas.