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Rare Texas lizard population has oil industry sweating bullets

Published: Monday, February 27, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 22:07

oil industry

COURTESY PHOTO

Adding the dunes sagebrush lizard to the endangered species list would render parts of the Permian Basin region off-limits to exploration and agricultural activities.

Ecological conservation researchers at Texas A&M paved the way for legislation that could help save a Texas underdog from extinction.

Texas Fisheries and Wildlife Services recommended adding the dunes sagebrush lizard — a small lizard native to the Mescalero and Monahan sandhills in the West Texas Permian Basin region — to the endangered species list in December 2008. Since then, A&M researchers partnered with state and academic organizations around Texas to dream up solutions to restore the lizard's habitat.

The lizard has been the focus of study of Lee Fitzgerald, professor of wildlife fisheries and sciences, for more than 18 years.

"If nothing is done to conserve the habitat then the lizards will continue to suffer," Fitzgerald said.

He said the demand for industry growth is hurting many domestic creatures, including salamanders, snails and birds that reside in the arid area.

"When you take away the shinnery oak or you cut it up into pieces that are really small, that geological distribution degrades and the lizards that have to have that for their habitat disappear," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think that anybody who is sitting around the table talking about conservation, whether they're from industry government or universities, really disputes that."

Tom Buckley, public information officer for the Texas Fisheries and Wildlife Southwest Region, said two proposed state policies would ensure that the animal receives protection in Texas.

"Ranchers and gas companies have been coming to us and saying that we would like to get involved to develop these plans so they can do their grazing and they can do their oil drilling, and we can still have protection we think is necessary to keep the lizard from going extinct," Buckley said.

Buckley said the goal is to prevent the lizard from being another animal added to the endangered species list. If the lizard does become the 64th animal in Texas on the list, the Texas Conservation Agreement will morph into a habitat conservation plan.

Currently, there are 460 working oil rigs in the Permian Basin area — half the rigs in Texas, and one-third of the rigs in America — that make up more than 20 percent of the nation's oil supply.

Ben Sheppard, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and Class of 1990, said adding the lizard to the endangered species list will render parts of the region off limits to exploration and agricultural activities, causing significant delays in production.

"These moratoriums and delays will have a significant negative impact on these industries and our Texas economy," Sheppard said. "This … represents hundreds of jobs, millions of dollars in investment and tens of millions of dollars in property and school tax revenue that keeps these counties alive."

Since 2011, Sheppard said the company has spent $100,000 on scientific and legal research on the sand dune lizard, including environmental toxicology, lizard genetics and impacts from oil and gas operations on soil.

 "Our research indicates that the habitat has not declined significantly in the last 50 years," Sheppard said.

Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaign director for the Center of Biological Diversity, said the center filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife services in 2002 to add the dunes sagebrush lizard to the Endangered Species list.

He said that reasons for the petition are long-winded, ranging from its distribution size to its population.

"Those last slivers of habitat are being threatened by various land uses like oil and gas drilling, herbicide spraying, cow-grazing and other things," McKinnon said. "These animals have a right to exist and we don't think an entire species should be driven [to] extinction — driven off the face of the planet."

 

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