E&E News: FWS delays politically charged lizard decision
December 1, 2011
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FWS delays politically charged lizard decision
Published: Thursday, December 1, 2011
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The Fish and Wildlife Service will postpone for six months its decision on whether to list a Southwestern lizard as an endangered species, the agency announced today.
The delay is a victory for Western Republicans who had asked the agency to put off its verdict on the 3-inch-long dunes sagebrush lizard. Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and James Inhofe of Oklahoma had asked the agency earlier this week for the delay to address science they think is flawed. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.) had also opposed the listing.
"I am pleased Director Ashe has listened to the concerns about the level and accuracy of data surrounding the lizard in Texas," Cornyn said in a statement this afternoon. "It's essential that the job creators who will be directly impacted have the opportunity to have their concerns heard before this potentially devastating listing goes forward."
The lizard, which roams parts of southeastern New Mexico and western Texas, has been at the center of disputes over endangered species protection and oil and gas development. Cornyn has been concerned that a listing could cripple future oil production in the Permian Basin, one of the nation's most productive deposits (E&E Daily, Oct. 25).
Under a settlement with environmental groups, FWS was due to make a final decision on the lizard by Dec. 15. FWS officials said the agency will use the extra time to evaluate information about the lizard's population and loss of habitat.
Cornyn and Inhofe have argued that the lizard often retreats underground as a defense mechanism, which can give wildlife surveyors a false sense that the lizards are disappearing from areas where they historically roamed.
Federal biologists say the lizard is "habitat specific" and found only in sand dune areas with the shrub shinnery oak.
A federal listing would require federal agencies to consult with FWS to ensure actions in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico won't lead to the species' demise.
Environmentalists who have pressed for the lizard's protection said the delay would put the animal more at risk.
"There's no scientific dispute that the lizard needs and deserves protection, so today's announcement looks a lot like the subversion of science for political expedience," said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity.
The lizard declines or dies in the face of oil and gas development or herbicide spraying, according to the center. But the group says the amount of land needed to protect the lizard is relatively small compared to the acres available for oil and gas development.
"The oil and gas industry is not in danger of extinction. This lizard is," McKinnon said.
In the six counties where the lizard lives in Texas, its habitat makes up less than 5 percent of state lands where the government collects oil and gas royalties, according to the environmental group's analysis of data from Texas and Texas A&M University. In New Mexico, the group says, the lizard would affect less than 1 percent of public lands where drilling was proposed over the past two years.