Endangered Listing Proposed for Lizard
LAS CRUCES — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list the dunes sagebrush lizard, or sand dune lizard, as an endangered species, a move that could restrict oil drilling, grazing and off-road vehicle use in the lizard's habitat in southeastern New Mexico.
Although the impact of listing the lizard as an endangered species is unclear, several energy industry officials expressed concern about the step, while conservation organizations said it was long overdue.
"We don't want to overreact at this point. We want to consider the Fish and Wildlife Service proposal and work through the process to see what the implications are, but we don't think it's good news for us," said Steve Henke, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
The Center for Biological Diversity said an endangered species designation would require limits on herbicide spraying used by some ranchers and restrictions on oil and gas drilling, plus additional funding for research and the development of a recovery plan. Noah Greenwald, the center's endangered species director, said the lizard "is finally receiving the protection it needs to survive."
A 60-day public comment period begins with the publication today of the proposal in the Federal Register. Fish and Wildlife is accepting comments from the public, industry and other government agencies that are received or postmarked on or before Feb. 14, 2011. A final determination will be made by the secretary of the interior.
The dunes sagebrush lizard, a light brown reptile with a maximum length less than 3 inches, lives exclusively in dunes covered by shinnery oak in southeastern New Mexico and four West Texas counties. Its New Mexico habitat covers about 700 square miles of the Mescalero sand dunes extending from the San Juan Mesa in northeastern Chaves County and the southwestern corner of Roosevelt County, through northeastern Eddy County and southern Lea County.
Listing would make it illegal to harm or kill the lizard. The Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday that the lizard is in danger of extinction throughout its entire range due to ongoing, significant threats of habitat loss. The biggest threat is from oil and gas development, according to conservationists.
Fish and Wildlife in 2001 considered listing the lizard as threatened, but concluded that listing was "warranted but precluded" by other priorities. The Center for Biological Diversity sought protection for the lizard under the Endangered Species Act in 2002. "Unfortunately, during eight years of delay, the lizard lost more of its habitat to oil and gas development, putting it at greater risk of extinction and making recovery harder," Greenwald said.
More than half of the lizard's habitat in New Mexico is on federal land held by the Bureau of Land Management, with about 70,000 acres on state trust land and about 97,000 acres on private land, said Doug Burger, the BLM's Pecos District manager.
To better protect the lizard's habitat and make listing unnecessary, the BLM revised its resource management plan in 2008 to carve out a 578-square-mile area in which it prohibited new oil and gas leases. About 40 percent of the area, however, is already leased and includes thousands of oil wells.
"I hope it's not too little, too late," John Horning of WildEarth Guardians said of the potential listing.
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