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Environmental groups ask feds to protect threatened West Texas lizard

Two environmental groups asked the federal government on Tuesday to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as threatened or endangered.

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Over the objections of the oil and gas industry, two environmental groups are asking the federal government to protect a tiny West Texas reptile amid the failure of a state-crafted plan to conserve it. 

The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The agency proposed listing the sand-colored critter as an endangered species back in 2010 primarily due to loss of habitat from oil and gas drilling and ranching operations in the Permian Basin — an oil-rich region that spans West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. But industry groups complained that an official listing, which would have severely restricted development in areas inhabited by the species, would hinder oil and gas production at a time when new drilling technologies were bringing new life to old oilfields.

After that, then-Comptroller Susan Combs — wielding a newfound oversight of endangered species — worked closely with the oil industry and others on a plan to protect the threatened lizard, recruiting a variety of energy companies as participants. But the comptroller’s office — now led by Glenn Hegar — has had to go back to the drawing board as industry participation hasn’t been as extensive as expected.

The success of the so-called Texas Conservation Plan also has been undermined by some of industry's most important suppliers. Last August, Robert Gulley — the head of the comptroller’s Division of Economic Growth and Endangered Species Management — warned the Fish and Wildlife Service that the companies that mine the fine-grained sand that oil and gas producers use for hydraulic fracturing posed a direct threat to the plan.

Gulley, a renowned expert on environmental law and endangered species whom Hegar hired to oversee the office's endangered species division in 2015, said that more than a dozen “frac-sand” companies were planning mining operations in four West Texas counties that are home to prime dunes sagebrush lizard habitat.

“The plan, which Combs oversaw through 2015, has failed to conserve the lizard,” the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife said in a news release Tuesday.

“Dunes sagebrush lizards have waited too long for the federal protection they desperately need to survive,” said Chris Nagano, a senior scientist for the center. “The only reason these rare lizards aren’t already protected is political interference by Susan Combs and the oil and gas industry, which is rapidly destroying the animals’ habitat.”

Combs is now acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The comptroller’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But the powerful Texas Oil & Gas Association swiftly released a statement condemning the petition and accusing the groups of an ulterior motive — shutting down oil and gas activity.

“Like previous attempts to list the dunes sagebrush lizard, this filing has nothing to do with the lizard’s habitat,” said Todd Staples, the association’s president, in a statement. “These groups routinely use the federal government to raise money to fund an anti-oil and gas agenda, wasting tax dollars and eroding our national energy and economic security.”

Disclosure: The Texas Oil & Gas Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here

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