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Feds Negligent in Protecting Rare Dunes Sagebrush Lizard

Texas Plan Not Sufficient to Protect Lizard from Extinction

WASHINGTON - Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit today challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision last year to cancel its proposal to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard under the Endangered Species Act. The groups say Fish and Wildlife is risking the species’ future by relying on a voluntary state conservation plan in which Texas maintains that individual agreements with landowners to conserve the lizards’ habitat cannot be made available to the federal agency or the public. Moreover, administration of the agreements is overseen by the very oil and gas executives who directly benefit from habitat destruction in the lizards’ habitat. 

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is operating completely in the dark in Texas on this one. Denying Endangered Species Act protection for a species that is clearly imperiled based on a wink and a nod from the state is downright negligent at best, since the Service has no way of validating the quality or effectiveness of the agreements,” said Jason Rylander, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife.  

After the lizard spent nearly 30 years as a candidate for endangered species protection, in 2010 the Service proposed to protect the lizard as endangered. This was a promising move for lizard survival, since the species’ narrow range has gotten narrower due to increased oil and gas drilling and herbicide spraying on livestock grazing land. However, 18 months later, the Service withdrew the proposal, citing the conservation agreement with Texas as a reason.

“It may sound cliché, but this really is an example of letting the fox guard the henhouse,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The dunes sagebrush lizard is hanging by a thread and needs the protections of the Endangered Species Act to have any chance at survival.”

That agreement only vaguely describes the conservation actions required of participants, leaving concrete conservation measures to be spelled out in certificates between each participant and the state of Texas. With these certificates guarded from public access by state laws, there is no way for Fish and Wildlife, or scientists and other experts, to determine whether such measures are adequate to prevent the lizard’s extinction. The lack of knowledge and transparency in this case not only further threatens the survival of dunes sagebrush lizard, but also sets a dangerous precedent for other species waiting in line for protection.

Compounding the problem, Texas has delegated authority to implement the agreement to a private entity, the “Texas Habitat Conservation Foundation,” which is run by three lobbyists from the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

The dunes sagebrush lizard is a small, brown lizard that buries itself in sand to avoid predators and regulate its body temperature. Considered one the nation’s most imperiled lizards, it has a very small and increasingly fragmented range in southeastern New Mexico and west Texas, where it is threatened by ongoing oil and gas drilling and herbicide spraying for livestock grazing.


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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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