Sand mining operations in oil-rich West Texas have disturbed at least 292 acres of a threatened lizard’s habitat this year — and could impact up to 23,000 acres, according to an advocacy group's analysis published Monday.

The dunes sagebrush lizard, a vulnerable species that calls the Permian Basin home, has long faced threats to its habitat from oil and drilling operations. Companies that mine fine-grain sand for hydraulic fracturing pose an additional threat, especially because several operations have been planned along a stretch of West Texas land considered a prime habitat for the lizard.

Last month, Texas’ endangered species chief said these “frac-sand” operations posed a “significant" risk to a plan meant to protect the lizard and the 248,686 acres it lives on. In an August letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the official noted that five frac-sand companies had disturbed more than 271 acres of the lizard's habitat and surrounding buffer areas between early-March and mid-July. Several companies have agreed to modify their plans.

Now, the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife has identified nine sand-mining operations that broke ground earlier this year and disturbed almost 300 acres of the lizard’s habitat and surrounding buffer areas between February and August. The group also used the nine sand mines' lease information to predict that over 23,000 acres, or 9.5 percent, of the lizard’s habitat and buffer zones could eventually be disturbed or destroyed.

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"If it is fully developed it would become a real problem for the lizard," said Ya-Wei Li, director of the group’s Center for Conservation Innovation. In a statement, he said, "Unfortunately, if the sand mining companies do not refrain from developing in lizard habitat, we might see the extirpation of the Texas populations in the near future."

In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the dunes sagebrush lizard under the Endangered Species Act, after the state comptroller's office finalized a voluntary plan meant to protect the lizard and conserve its habitat. 

But that plan has been criticized by environmental groups, who have argued it doesn’t adequately protect the lizard, in part because it relies on voluntary compliance.

Lauren Willis, a spokesperson for Comptroller Glenn Hegar, said it's an important issue that is being taken seriously but that companies never mine boundary to boundary. In addition, "a typical sand mine only mines about 70 to 100 acres a year," Willis said. "It would take close to 300 years to mine 23,000 acres." 

Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said in a statement that oil and gas operators "have been meeting with the sand mining industry regularly since it learned of this new Permian Basin activity" and "have urged sand miners to minimize or avoid impact to [the lizard's] habitat." 

"Those discussions are active and ongoing, and we are confident the sand miners can" find a way to allow "the region's new economic activity to occur" and protect the lizard on a long-term basis.

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The Defenders of Wildlife group used satellite data and cloud computing for its analysis, and Li said satellite images of the nine sand mines, and new ones that break ground, would be distributed online each month. "We have, in something like real-time, the ability to track the footprint of every one of these projects and then help hold those companies accountable if they're going to destroy lizard habitats."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department did not immediately provide a comment Monday.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The state's endangered species chief says a plan to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard is facing a "significant threat" from companies that mine the fine-grain sand that oil producers use for hydraulic fracturing. [Full story]

  • Congressmen Lamar Smith and Randy Weber wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Treasury alleging that American environmental groups are being funded by Russia. Critics say the Texas Republicans are trying to divert attention from President Trump's Russia problems. [Full story]

  • As the glow from Permian Basin work sites hinders research and amateur stargazing at the McDonald Observatory in far West Texas, some companies are calling on their colleagues to address the problem. [Full story]

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