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Federal government sued over failure to protect dunes sagebrush lizard

The dunes sagebrush lizard is at about three inches long, a rather small, nondescript lizard of golden color and stripes along the body. The lizard is only found in particular semi-stable dune habitats in New Mexico and adjoining Texas. 

According to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the dunes sagebrush lizard occupies only 655 square miles of New Mexico in Mescalero Sands, a desolate place of dunes managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as an off highway vehicle area. But the dunes sagebrush lizard habitat in Texas is even more threatened by human activity than that in New Mexico.       

A 2018 report from the Center for Biological Diversity outlines how the state of Texas at the time ‘kills conservation plan’ for the imperiled lizard. The Texas Comptroller, the state office with authority over conservation in Texas, withdrew all protections from the dunes sagebrush lizard. The lizard now depends on federal law for any protection it might receive. 

In 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity also filed a petition for the lizard to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. In Texas, the dunes sagebrush lizard lives in the Permian Basin, a place I worked in oil exploration in another life. The landscape is a rough one of scrubby plants that tear at clothes, unrelenting heat, and rough geography.

As the name suggests, the Permian Basin is also home to ancient geological formations and with them, plenty of fossil fuels. In fact, the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard is threatened by fracking as well as traditional oil development in the area along with other fragmentation of the lizard’s habitat. West Texas also offers the development of resources for fracking itself.

During hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, high pressure fluids are used to break open geological formations, allowing the extraction of oil or other fossil fuels. When the cracks are created allowing access to the fossil fuel deposits, the cracks will close if they’re not ‘propped open’. A special type of sand is used to hold these cracks open, a spherical sand found in only a few locations in the US. Earthworks reports that as much as 10,000 tons of fracking sand can be used at a single oil well. 

The mining of this sand is also incredibly disruptive to the environment. The whole top surface of earth or ‘overburden’ must be scraped away by heavy machinery to reach the frac sand below. Berms are created with the overburden, plants are usually killed, the land is forever altered by the mining. Sometimes removing the sand requires blasting. This along with the direct extraction of fossil fuels, requiring large amounts of disruption and development, threaten the dunes sagebrush lizard, a problem that has not adequately been addressed by the state of Texas’ conservation plan.       

Susan Combs, who pushed for the withdrawal of federal protections of the dunes sagebrush lizard as Texas Comptroller, is widely known as being critical of the Endangered Species Act and seeing environmental protections as simply an obstacle to business. The power of the comptroller over endangered species management is unique to Texas, the only state where wildlife officials don’t oversee this task. 

The withdrawal of potential federal protections of the lizard in 2012 was moreover based on a flawed conservation plan in Texas created by Combs in 2010. Combs is now the Trump administration’s acting Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks in the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The initial conservation plan created by Combs was formally rescinded by the current Texas comptroller Glen Hegar in December 2018 due to its ineffectiveness. Among other problems with the plan, it failed to address the growing threat of frac sand mining to the lizard. A new conservation plan is under development, but the US Fish & Wildlife Service has yet to approve the plan, and it is unclear if the new plan is adequate in its approach.   

So far, the Trump administration has seemed unwilling to afford the dunes sagebrush lizard the possibility of any federal protections which has pushed environmentalists to file a lawsuit against the administration over its failure to act.

Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity have joined together to file the lawsuit against the federal government. Initially, the two groups again petitioned the US Fish & Wildlife Service to protect the lizard under the Endangered Species Act as well as designate critical habitat for the dunes sagebrush lizard in May 2018. The petition noted that the existing lizard habitat was threatened by fossil fuel extraction and sand mining. The law requires that the service evaluate the petition in 90 days and give a finding whether listing may be warranted. 

If this initial finding is positive, the law allows twelve months for the service to determine whether to list the species or not. The US Fish & Wildlife Service missed both deadlines, initiating the impetus for a lawsuit. This is part of a long ongoing battle for the protection of the lizard. 

The dunes sagebrush lizard has been a candidate for protection since 1982 but inaction on the part of the federal government and interference by the Texas government has continuous forestalled protection for the lizard. As I noted earlier, the lizard was first afforded some federal protection in 2010 but that protection was removed in 2012 due to the ineffective Texas conservation plan.

The lawsuit filed by Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity gives the US Fish & Wildlife Service 90 days to respond to the intent to sue notice given on July 19, 2019. Time is of the essence as Defenders of Wildlife studies found that over the last 18 months, 1,600 acres of lizard habitat have been destroyed. 

As of now, there are no legal protections for the lizard. The current administration seems actually opposed to giving any protection to the dunes sagebrush lizard but it’s also inexcusable that the government under many administrations has failed to protect the lizard since 1982. Small animals like the dunes sagebrush lizard, living in habitat seldom considered by most, are easy to ignore for profit.

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer           

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Image Credit: Center for Biological Diversity

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