A rare NM lizard is now listed as endangered

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the dunes sagebrush lizard to the list of endangered species on Friday and is expected to designate critical habitat in the future. The listing goes into effect in 30 days. The lizard relies on the shinnery oaks that grow on dunes in southeastern New Mexico and Texas. This […]

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the dunes sagebrush lizard to the list of endangered species on Friday and is expected to designate critical habitat in the future. The listing goes into effect in 30 days.

The lizard relies on the shinnery oaks that grow on dunes in southeastern New Mexico and Texas.

This listing is 40 years in the making, as the Fish and Wildlife Service first identified the lizard as at risk of extinction in 1982. Then, in 2002, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to have the lizard listed as endangered. After the Center for Biological Diversity sued the federal agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing it as endangered in 2010, but ultimately chose to rely on voluntary, non-binding agreements to protect the lizard’s habitat.

Then, in 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity once again petitioned to have it listed as endangered and, in 2022, reached a legal agreement with the federal government placing a deadline on a listing decision.

“It’s been one lawsuit after another and comments filed,” Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “So I would have been delighted if it happened yesterday. I’m glad it didn’t happen tomorrow. This lizard really needs protection, ASAP. I mean, so little of its habitat remains.”

The listing decision was announced on the third Friday in May, which is the day that thousands of people worldwide celebrate as Endangered Species Day. 

Over the decades, the threats the dunes sagebrush lizard faces have changed. 

Robinson said 40 years ago the primary threat was herbicide spraying. Ranchers were spraying herbicides on the shinnery oaks to create what Robinson described as “marginally more grass” in between the dunes.

Now the primary threat is the oil and gas industry of the Permian Basin.

Industry groups have maintained that candidate conservation agreements—voluntary agreements to protect species that are being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act—are making sufficient strides and that the listing is unnecessary and will have a detrimental effect on the economy of southeastern New Mexico.

“The existing CCA and [candidate conservation agreements with assurances] in New Mexico and Texas have provided, and continue to provide, many conservation benefits for the dunes sagebrush lizard. However, based on the information we reviewed in our assessment, we conclude that the risk of extinction for the dunes sagebrush lizard is high despite these efforts,” the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote in the document announcing the listing.

The Fish and Wildlife Service states that the habitat loss has continued even with the CCAs in place.

“The current buffer around duneland habitat in New Mexico is 30 meters. As a result, development continues in close proximity to duneland habitat. This has led to increased habitat fragmentation and a loss of connectivity between important habitat patches,” the listing document states.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says that the “enduring legacy” of oil and gas extraction has left a vast number of historical and unrestored well pads as well as associated infrastructure that impacts the dunes sagebrush lizard.

While technologies like horizontal drilling have resulted in reduced well pad density and surface impacts, the Fish and Wildlife Service states that “that does not allay the myriad issues with the degree and extent of historical well pads or the small proportion of well pads that have been reclaimed and returned to adequate dunes sagebrush lizard habitat.”

And it isn’t just the wells themselves that are impacting the lizard.

Frac sand mining is also causing a loss of habitat, though there are no peer-reviewed studies that examine to what extent sand mining operations are impacting the lizard. That is in part because frac sand mining only became prevalent in the area in 2017. The process results in removal of both dunes and shinnery oaks.

Once that habitat is gone, it is lost forever.

“Because restoration of shinnery oak duneland is not currently feasible, loss of habitat within duneland complexes must be viewed as a potential permanent impact to the species,” the Fish and Wildlife Service states.

Even if a well pad is reclaimed, the sand dunes that were once there cannot be recreated except through a geological process that takes hundreds to thousands of years.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the dunes sagebrush lizard has lost 95 percent of its habitat to the oil and gas industry, including the frac sand mining operations.

Like many species, the dunes sagebrush lizard is also threatened by climate change, though the extent to which warming temperatures will harm the lizard is a bit uncertain. There are no studies examining how the lizard is responding to climate change. But there are studies looking at how climate change is impacting the shinnery oak, which the lizard relies upon for shade and shelter.

Robinson said the lizard relies on the shinnery oak to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter, when it buries itself in the sand near the oak’s extensive roots.

But the listing decision issued this week was not fully good news, according to Robinson. Critical habitat has not yet been designated.

“Fish and Wildlife Service is saying that they might take up to a year to propose areas for critical habitat and we think this is an entirely unnecessary and unwarranted delay,” he said.

He said the Endangered Species Act allows a one-year delay in critical habitat designation if needed to determine where that habitat exists. But the Fish and Wildlife Service is taking its time in designating the critical habitat as it evaluates the economic impacts that those designations might have, Robinson said.

But, once the endangered species listing is fully in effect, the rule does include measures to protect the habitat where the lizard occurs including banning frac sand mining and prohibiting actions that would lower the water table such as drilling for groundwater beneath the dunes, Robinson said.

He said he is relieved that the lizard finally has protections.

“I’m delighted that the dunes sagebrush lizard might be with us for hundreds or thousands more years if all goes well,” he said.

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