U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday that the dunes sagebrush lizard might not be listed as endangered if enough energy companies and ranchers voluntarily agree to preserve the sand-dwelling reptile’s habitat.
Salazar endorsed the conservation pacts as a way to protect the lizard while avoiding the more rigid federal endangered-species listing, which could put the brakes on oil and gas drilling in parts of West Texas and New Mexico.
“We are making great progress with volunteer agreements,” he said after touring a ConocoPhillips site near Midland, in the imperiled lizard’s range. “We might be able to avoid a listing.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service, which Salazar oversees, must decide by mid-June whether to list the three-inch reptile, also known as the sand dune lizard, as an endangered species, a designation intended to save it from extinction.
The federal agency was due to make a decision last year, but delayed it by six months under intense congressional pressure. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and other lawmakers asked for the delay after questioning the agency’s methods for surveying the lizard.
Salazar said the listing will be based on the best available science, but may not be necessary because of the growing number of conservation agreements.
Fish and Wildlife proposed listing the lizard as endangered in 2010 because of increased oil and gas activity in the Permian Basin had left the lizard without enough habitat to survive. The reptile lives only among stands of shinnery oak, a relatively rare tree that thrives in the sand dunes of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas.
The agreements require landowners to take a number of steps, from designating buffers around dunes where the lizards live to removing well pads and roads to recovering former habitat. Ranchers also promise not spray herbicides to remove shinnery oak, which are toxic to cattle.
The agreements, in turn, shield them from liability for the accidental “taking” of a lizard.
In Texas, ranchers and energy companies have enrolled 211,770 acres, or about 70 percent, of habitat area in voluntary conservation pacts with the state comptroller’s office.
The proposed listing of the lizard “was based on loss and fragmentation of habitat,” said Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “The agreements we have are designed to do just that, protect the habitat.”
Still, Permian Basin Petroleum Association President Ben Shepperd, whose group represents about 900 oil and gas producers, questioned the need for conservation plans, saying research does not show the lizard is threatened or endangered.
Despite the “carrot” of no endangered-species listing for conservation agreements, Shepperd said, “I see no need to surrender part of Texas to an administration in Washington, D.C., that has shown only contempt for the oil it contains.”
Environmentalists, meanwhile, said the sand dune lizard warrants federal protection and questioned whether the conservation agreements would provide enough.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service has a policy for evaluating conservation measures for imperiled species and voluntary, unproven conservation agreements are unlikely to meet that standard,” said Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. “But we support any good faith effort to protect sensitive flora and fauna.”