Dunes Sagebrush Lizard

A small brown spiny striped lizard is causing a Texas sized controversy for those concerned about how conservation efforts could damage the economy. And now there are accusations that protections proposed by the Obama administration are being pursued to undercut the economy in the Republican-dominated state.

The Dunes Sagebrush Lizard is a proposed candidate for the Endangered Species List by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. If added, the lizard and its habitat would be protected by government regulation, raising concerns about interference with thriving Texan industries such as oil, gas and ranching.

Helen McDaniel, a widowed rancher, is one of many voicing opposition. McDaniel owns property in four Texas counties, three of which the lizard is believed to occupy including Crane, Ward, and Winkler.

“This is a tragedy for us out here, a disaster for me personally,” said McDaniel.

Ranching is McDaniel’s source of income. She is concerned that if government regulation interferes with ranching, hunting, and other activities on the counties included as the lizards habitat, her valuable land will become worthless.

The lizard’s habitat is listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to be “known or believed to occur” in seven counties in west Texas and four counties in southeast New Mexico. This area includes the Permian Basin known for its thriving oil industry.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services website, “Threats to the lizard include habitat removal, fragmentation and degradation as a result of oil and gas development and shinnery oak removal.”

Possibly the most affected landowner in the Texas area is the board of regents of the University of Texas system, which has property in Andrews and Crane Counties. UT owns over 2.1 million acres of land in Texas, with 75,000 acres that might identified as habitat for the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard.

The university lands function as education trust lands making up the Permanent University Fund. Income is used to back higher education in Texas. The Permanent University fund is valued at more than $12 billion and gives sums larger than $500 million every year (through available university fund distributions) to UT and Texas A&M.

Scott Kelley, executive vice chancellor for business affairs and Barry Burgdorf, vice chancellor and general counsel for the University of Texas system, sent comments to the Fish and Wildlife Services in reaction to the proposal to add the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard to the Endangered Species List.

Kelley and Burgdorf wrote, “We think it is clear that insufficient evidence exists for any designation at this time, at least further research is needed, and at worst a premature designation and a following ill-conceived management plan based on a faulty designation could in fact harm the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard and other species in the range.”

Their comments cite gaps in the scientific backing of listing the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard including incorrect identification of habit areas in Texas and insufficient data on the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard population in Texas.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn filed an amendment to the Economic Development Administration reauthorization bill that would stop the Sand Dune Lizard from being placed on the Endangered Species List and exempt it from the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

“If the Obama administration has its way, this scaly political pawn will land on the Endangered Species List, without sufficient supporting research to back up the move, and effectively bring new and existing oil and gas production in parts of Texas and New Mexico to a screeching halt,” said Cornyn.

But the Center for Biological Diversity says, “the range of Dunes Sagebrush Lizard covers approximately 600,000 acres, or less than one percent of all oil and gas lands in the Permian Basin.”

A December 2010 report by the Center for Biological Diversity said protection for the Dunes Sagebursh Lizard if listed would require, “limits on herbicide spraying and oil and gas drilling, additional funding for research, and development of a recovery plan.”

Endangered Species Director of the Center for Biological Diversity Noah Greenwald was quoted as saying, “The Dunes Sagebrush Lizard occurs in one of the most exceptional, but least protected, areas of New Mexico and Texas and remains under threat from livestock grazing and oil and gas development.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services spokes Charna Lefton said that FWS is still mapping the lizard’s potential habitat and they are moving forward with the “best available science.”

Furthermore, Lefton says the goal of FWS is to protect species so that the land is healthy and the economy is healthy.

“The federal government believes that conservation and economic growth can go hand in hand,” said Lefton.

However, some individuals in areas affected remain weary of what they perceive to be government intrusion into their economic well being.

Teresa Burnett is the Chamber of Commerce executive director in Monahans, Texas, known as the “Center of the Permian Basin.”

Burnett said she feels “sandbagged” by the possible designation of the Sagebrush Dunes Lizard and believes oil and gas jobs, retail, schools, and county and city government in her city would be negatively affected.

Some individuals in Texas and New Mexico have demonstrated their opposition to the listing of the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard through protesting. One protest in April in Roswell, N.M., had approximately 750 people in attendance.

The keynote speaker at the rally, Congressman Steve Pearce, said, “Irresponsible, unbalanced overregulation limits the amount of energy produced, which kills jobs, causes severe budget problems in the state, and increases costs to citizens. In this time of high unemployment, we can, and must, do better.”

A decision on whether to add the lizard on the endangered species list is expected in December.

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