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Dunes Sagebrush Lizard Kept Off Endangered List

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said Wednesday the dunes sagebrush lizard (DSL) does not need to be listed on the Endangered Species Act after New Mexico and Texas voluntarily agreed to protect the animal's habitat.

The decision is a victory for the oil and gas industry, which feared that having the DSL listed would hinder production in the Permian Basin and unconventional operations in the region, including the Avalon and Wolfcamp shale plays and the Bone Spring, Sprayberry, Wolfberry and Wolfbone formations.

"This is a great example of how states and landowners can take early, landscape-level action to protect wildlife habitat before a species is listed under the Endangered Species Act," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "The voluntary conservation efforts of Texas and New Mexico, oil and gas operators, private landowners and other stakeholders show that we don't have to choose between energy development and the protection of our land and wildlife. We can do both."

Under the agreements, New Mexico and Texas will work to protect existing shinnery oak dune systems and reduce the impact of oil and gas development across a combined 650,000 acres in 11 counties, a land area that makes up approximately 88% of the DSL's habitat. The states will also look to minimize other impacts on the lizard, including off-road vehicle traffic, wind and solar development, and increased predation caused by development.

The 11 counties that comprise the DSL's range are Andrews, Cochran, Crane, Gaines, Ward, Winkler and Yoakum in Texas, and Chaves, Eddy, Lea and Roosevelt in New Mexico.

"The states of New Mexico and Texas have worked tirelessly with the [FWS], the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] and scores of landowners and operators in the Permian Basin to conserve and protect habitat that supports the [DSL] and many other species," said FWS Director Dan Ashe. "These ongoing efforts will play a key role in ensuring the future of the lizard, while allowing responsible oil and gas development to continue."

The DSL was first listed as a possible candidate for federal protection in 1982. The FWS proposed listing the lizard as "endangered" in December 2010, but one year later agreed to delay its final determination for another six months (see Daily GPI, Dec. 5, 2011).

"I am glad that the [FWS] has confirmed what we knew all along: oil and gas exploration and production does not pose a threat to this lizard," Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) Chairman Barry Smitherman said. "We have worked hard fighting this battle, and I am thankful that the science and common sense have prevailed. As a result of our continued efforts, hardworking Texans, especially those in the Permian Basin, did not become victims of any anti-fossil fuel agenda."

According to the Texas Oil & Gas Association (TXOGA), 1 million b/d of oil production in Texas -- one-fifth of the nation's domestic oil production -- could have been shut in had the DSL been listed.

"Research continued to reinforce that listing the lizard as an endangered species was unwarranted, so we are pleased that [FWS] issued a decision that is reflective of the science," said Deb Hastings, executive vice president of TXOGA. "Listing the lizard in the absence of science would have had devastating economic consequences for Texas, which relies on robust oil and natural gas production to anchor the state economy."

The FWS said information provided by the BLM and Texas A&M University enabled them to refine maps of shinnery oak dune systems, and they found more places occupied by the lizard, especially in Texas.

"After a careful analysis of the scientific data and the protections provided by the voluntary conservation efforts, [our] biologists determined the lizard is no longer in danger of extinction, nor likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future," the FWS said. "[We] will closely monitor the conservation measures to ensure they are being implemented and effectively address identified threats."

But environmental groups weren't happy with the decision. "Biologically, there is no species more deserving of listing than the [DSL]," said Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians. "We hope the species can persist without federal protection. We hope [Salazar] and the [FWS] weren't badgered into withdrawing the listing proposal by...the oil and gas industry, who have declared a jihad against a three-inch lizard."

According to the FWS, about 73% of the DSL's total habitat lies in New Mexico, with the remaining 27% in Texas.

New Mexico first entered into conservation agreements with the FWS, BLM and a nonprofit scientific research organization in 2008 to protect the DSL. In March the state Land Office enrolled about 474,500 acres under those agreements, making the land ineligible for oil and gas leasing. As a result, about 95% of the lizard's range in New Mexico is now protected.

Meanwhile, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts signed a 30-year conservation agreement with the FWS in February, protecting about 175,500 acres. That figure represents about 71% of the lizard's range in Texas.

Despite the positive outcome, Smitherman warned that "there are dozens more species the anti-fossil fuel crowd will be using this same strategy with."

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