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Updated: Combs, Oil Groups Applaud Decision to Keep Lizard Off Endangered List

A federal decision not to list the dunes sagebrush lizard — whose habitat includes the West Texas oilfields — as threatened or endangered set off a round of cheering by state officials and oil groups. But some environmentalists fear for the lizard's future.

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Update, 1:25 p.m.:

On a conference call Wednesday afternoon, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar expressed confidence that what he called the “unprecedented” voluntary conservation efforts by Texas and New Mexico would keep the dunes sagebrush lizard viable.

“I’m 100 percent confident that [the conservation agreements] will be effective,” Salazar said, adding that the efforts in the Permian Basin could become a conservation model for other parts of the country.

Dan Ashe, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that his department would monitor the conservation agreements on a yearly basis, and that if there is backsliding, ultimately the department could again propose the lizard for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

“We have determined that the lizard is no longer in danger of extinction and is not likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future,” Ashe said.                             

Salazar said the decision not to add the lizard to the endangered species list came “after exhaustive analysis and based on a review of best available science,” and he praised Comptroller Susan Combs for having “rolled up her sleeves” and pulled together the Texas agreement.

Salazar noted the importance of the Permian Basin area — where the lizard exists — for oil and gas development, and said the agreements made good sense for the industry and ranchers. Asked about criticism from some environmental groups that he was selling out to the oil industry, Salazar said, “I think it’s unfortunate that we’ll hear that comment from some groups — they may want to keep the conflict going for conflict’s sake.”

Indeed, some environmental groups support Salazar. In a release, the Environmental Defense Fund said it supported the federal decision not to list. “The pro-active approach embraced here by industry, landowners and the Fish and Wildlife Service is an important component in meeting the needs of our nation in a way that benefits wildlife, is cost effective and respects landowners,” David Festa, vice president of the group’s land, water and wildlife program, said in a statement.

Original story:

A lizard whose habitat includes the West Texas oilfields will not be added to the endangered species list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday.

The oil and gas industry and state officials are applauding the move, which removes, for the moment, a potentially significant obstruction for the West Texas oil boom.

“This is a huge win for the Texas economy,” said Comptroller Susan Combs, whose office had coordinated a voluntary conservation plan for the dunes sagebrush lizard in an effort to stave off a federal endangered listing. “It’s a huge win for private property rights, and I think it’s a big win for [the] species.”

The Texas Oil and Gas Association also voiced approval. “Research continued to reinforce that listing the lizard as an endangered species was unwarranted. So we are pleased that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a decision that is reflective of the science,” said Deb Hastings, executive vice president of the association.

Environmentalists, however, expressed frustration. “This is an unfortunate decision,” Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, said in an email. “There is no species more deserving of federal protection than the dunes sagebrush lizard. Existing conservation measures, particularly in Texas, are so weak that I fear the species may become extirpated in parts of its remaining range.”

A press call with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on the ruling was scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Central time on Wednesday.

In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service delayed a decision on whether to list the lizard as threatened or endangered after Texas industry and officials clamored for additional studies.

Combs said that in the intervening months, studies by universities including Texas A&M and Texas Tech, with funding from groups like The Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, had failed to find a scientific basis to support a listing. She credited U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, with orchestrating a push in Washington for better data. The Fish and Wildlife Service accepted the new studies, Combs said.

"We had always said that there was absolutely no scientific data to support a listing," Combs said.

But Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that the science, including the new studies, “didn’t show the lizard wasn’t endangered.” Oil and gas drilling drives the lizard away, he said.

“From our perspective, this is a blatantly political decision that runs directly counter to the Endangered Species Act mandate to rely solely on the best available science,” Greenwald said.

About 250,000 acres in the Permian Basin — including 85 percent of the lizard habitat — will participate in the voluntary conservation program, according to Combs. That could mean taking steps like chopping mesquite or moving roads to aid the lizard. The landowners will not get paid for participation, she said.

Combs also foresees additional controversies over other species that could receive a threatened or endangered listing. “You’re going to see, I think, a huge battle in Williamson and Bell Counties over four salamanders,” she said. The potential listing of the lesser prairie chicken, which resides in multiple states including Texas, will likely be another flashpoint, she said.

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