The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently delayed by six months its determination of whether the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard (DSL) qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Oil and gas interests are watching the issue as they believe protection for the DSL would hinder oil and gas production in the Permian Basin.

"Listing the DSL under the Endangered Species Act would jeopardize oil and gas production in the Permian Basin, which is responsible for 20% of the oil produced in the United States," said Barry Smitherman, chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) and a former member of the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates oil and gas activity in the state.

"I am glad Fish and Wildlife has agreed to step back and further review all of the available facts. It is my sincere hope that once they have reviewed the objective facts, they will reach the conclusion that the DSL is not endangered."

USFWS proposed listing the lizard as "endangered" in December 2010.The extension is to allow consideration of additional scientific information on the species and its habitat.

"Conservationists support using all the best available science to make species listing decisions, but we don't see the need to delay listing in this case," said Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians, which is seeking protection for the DSL. "In the end, we expect the species to be listed."

The DSL, also known as the sand dune lizard, occurs in sand dunes in shinnery oak grasslands in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. The species has the second smallest range of any lizard in North America and is extremely sensitive to disturbance, including oil and gas development, according to conservationists. Scientists warned as early as 1997 that the lizard faced extinction without greater protections, WildEarth said.

"...[T]he lizard occupies a tiny patch of habitat in the [Permian] Basin, and oil and gas drilling will be unaffected by conservation actions in more than 99% of the region if the lizard is listed," WildEarth said.

But protecting the lizard would kill jobs, said Smitherman, who was among those who sought a delay in the USFWS decision.

"An endangerment finding for this lizard is not something to be trifled with; a miscalculation and decision to list the lizard as endangered would not only threaten our economy by killing jobs, it could harm our national security by making us more beholden to dictators like Hugo Chavez, who are members of OPEC and other oil-producing countries that are hostile to the United States," Smitherman said.

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