The Dunes Sagebrush Lizard Saga Ends With A Compromise

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Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard does not qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), ending 10 years of rancor between conservationists, cattle ranchers, the oil and gas industry, and law makers.  Instead of seeking ESA protection (which carries the potential for fines and land seizures), the Department of the Interior has opted for a partnership between landowners in the far southeast corner of New Mexico, and adjacent counties in Texas and the government to insure that the lizard’s very specific habitat is protected.  The agreement will protect about 650,000 acres of the lizard’s habitat by allowing landowners and oil producers to pay into a system that will be monitored by the Fish and Wildlife Service.  If the agreement proves unsuccessful, the lizard could still be place under ESA protection.

The Dunes Sagebrush Lizard occupies an extremely limited ecological niche.  It lives only amongst the root systems of the shinnery oak, a small tree that grows in sand dunes along the western edge of the Permian Basin.  This ecosystem constitutes one of the smallest ranges occupied by any reptile species in the US, and is particularly threatened by several factors: the encroachment of oil and gas drillers into the area whose well pads and roads disrupt the shinnery oak dunes, and by cattle ranchers who cut down the trees (they are poisonous to cattle) and allow mesquite trees to invade the ecosystem.

While the limited range and numerous habitat threats made the lizard a prime candidate for ESA protection, the lag time between species designation and actual federal regulation can have serious detrimental effects in areas which are already experiencing development.  Landowners will often seek to destroy habitat before federal inspectors arrive rather than deal with the consequences of regulation, as this excerpt from the New York Times Magazine explains:

In a working paper that examines the plight of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, the economists John List, Michael Margolis and Daniel Osgood found that landowners near Tucson rushed to clear their property for development rather than risk having it declared a safe haven for the owl. The economists make the argument for “the distinct possibility that the Endangered Species Act is actually endangering, rather than protecting, species.”

Ken Kramer of the Sierra Club was skeptical of the decision, and released this statement questioning the viability of the voluntary agreement that was reached:

 If indeed the voluntary agreements with landowners to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard will be adequate to maintain the species, then they put the lie to the rhetoric from a number of Texas and New Mexico politicians who made outrageous claims about the alleged economic impacts of listing the species. But let's be clear that these agreements are voluntary. That means that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will have to be active in seeing that these agreements are carried out and have the desired results, but the agency will not have the power to enforce the agreements. That's the real difference between listing or not listing a species as endangered – not the specific actions to protect a species, which may well be the same in a voluntary agreement or an agency mandate, but the ability to make sure those actions take place. Basing the fate of the dunes sagebrush lizard solely on voluntary actions puts the species at greater risk.

Other conservationists and Democratic figures were less pessimistic about the outcome.  In a conversation with the Las Cruces Sun-News, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said, “This is a great example of how voluntary cooperative agreements are being used to help protect a habitat and a species, while allowing oil and gas development to continue in southeastern New Mexico.  I hope this process can serve as a model for the future.”

The Environmental Defense Fund, a conservation group that encourages private-public partnerships, noted that over half of all endangered wildlife inhabits privately held land, and lauded the agreement as step in the right direction.  “The pro-active approach embraced here by industry, landowners and the Fish and Wildlife Service is an important component in meeting the needs of our nation in a way that benefits wildlife, is cost effective and respects landowners.”

Secretary Salazar was confidant that the agreements will protect the species, saying “My goal as secretary of the interior is to implement a 21st-century conservation agenda.  And when I see in southeastern New Mexico and in northern Texas 650,000 acres-plus being placed into conservation, that's a huge conservation victory. And when I see most of the lizard habitat being protected, it's a huge conservation victory.”


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