Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, May 8, 2018

Contacts:  Chris Nagano, Center for Biological Diversity, (916) 765-9097,
Rebecca Bullis, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-0295,

Endangered Species Protection, Critical Habitat Sought for Lizard in Texas, New Mexico

Dunes Sagebrush Lizard Severely Threatened by Oil and Gas Drilling, Frack-sand Mining

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife today petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard under the Endangered Species Act.

The petition also requests that the Service designate critical habitat for the lizard because thousands of acres of its habitat are at risk from oil and gas drilling and sand-mining projects in Texas and New Mexico.

The Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to protect the species in 2012, a decision based partly on a voluntary Texas Conservation Plan. That plan was finalized just months earlier between the Service and the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Susan Combs, now Acting Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks for the U.S. Department of the Interior. The plan, which Combs oversaw through 2015, has failed to conserve the lizard.

“Dunes sagebrush lizards have waited too long for the federal protection they desperately need to survive,” said Chris Nagano, a senior scientist at the Center. “The only reason these rare lizards aren’t already protected is political interference by Susan Combs and the oil and gas industry, which is rapidly destroying the animals’ habitat.”

One major flaw in the Texas lizard conservation plan is that under Combs’ leadership, the comptroller’s office maintained that individual habitat-protection agreements with landowners are confidential. That means that even the Fish and Wildlife Service does not know where and how much habitat is being protected. The plan also fails to address the new threat posed by mining of sand used for fracking, which as documented in the petition has rapidly expanded and poses a major threat to the lizard.

“Without our listing petition to compel action, the dunes sagebrush lizard is at great risk of going extinct in Texas. FWS failed the lizard in 2012 by declining to list the species and now has another chance to heed the science and get it right,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO for Defenders of Wildlife. “Defenders has been sounding the alarm for years that the Texas Conservation Plan is unable to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard or its habitat. Our petition explains how the plan has failed to properly address oil and gas development in lizard habitat and is incapable of managing the fast-growing threat of sand mining. The lizard is in greater peril now than it was when the plan was adopted and plainly needs the protections of the Act. Until it is protected, FWS should work with the Texas Comptroller's office and stakeholders to revise the flawed Texas Conservation Plan so that it actually conserves the lizard.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service must evaluate today’s petition and publish a finding within one year on whether protection for the dunes sagebrush lizard may be warranted. If the initial finding is positive, the animal will receive a status review that will result in either a proposal for listing or a finding that listing is not warranted.

The dunes sagebrush lizard is a small brown reptile that inhabits a tiny sliver of southeast New Mexico and West Texas. The species relies on shinnery oak for shade and buries itself in the sand to regulate its body temperature. It is primarily active between April and October and feeds on small insects.

Despite the rarity of the dunes sagebrush lizard and threats to its habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the species under the Endangered Species Act in 2012. That decision, based partly on the conservation plan developed by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, addressed various land uses in the region, including oil and gas development. Under the plan, participants agree to avoid and minimize certain activities that harm the lizard and restore its habitat.

But the Texas Conservation Plan has never lived up to its promises. As early as 2013, Defenders offered extensive critiques of the plan and documented unauthorized habitat destruction occurring under the plan. For a full timeline of ESA and dunes sagebrush lizard events, click here.

Susan Combs, who oversaw the drafting of the plan and vigorously opposed the Service’s 2010 proposal to list the lizard, is now in charge of reviewing all ESA listing decisions in her role as Acting Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. Defenders and the Center are deeply concerned about political-level interference in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s review of the listing petition.

The Defenders’ Center for Conservation Innovation uses satellite images to track the footprint of all sand mines within or adjacent to lizard habitat. To see monthly images of the sand mines to date, follow this link to our interactive Story Map. For the full analysis and to reach the Story Map click here.

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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