A lengthy and hard- fought battle over a lizard that can only be found in the shinery oak dunes of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas took a turn for the best Wednesday when federal officials decided against dubbing the reptile an endangered species.
An unprecedented number of voluntary conservation agreements now in place in New Mexico and Texas persuaded the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw its proposal to list the dunes sagebrush lizard as a species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Candidate Conservation Agreements and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurance, accords between industry and species, are tools created by the Service to establish cooperative conservation. These agreements, both voluntary, have been joined upon by the Bureau of Land Management and praised by politicians.
“The states of New Mexico and Texas have worked tirelessly with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and scores of landowners and operators in the Permian Basin to conserve and protect habitat that supports the dunes sagebrush lizard and many other species,”
stated Service Director Dan Ashe in a joint press release from the FWS and the Department of Interior. “These ongoing efforts will play a key role in ensuring the future of the lizard, while allowing responsible oil and gas development to continue.”
The press release listed more than 650,000 acres in New Mexico and Texas as being enrolled in these agreements, totaling 88 percent of the lizard’s habitat.
While the agreements may provide an environmental peace of mind, they do not weigh lightly on an industry’s bank account. In New Mexico, the fee to enroll is $2 per acre. Each activity an industry performs within a habitat has a fee assessed to it based upon the habitat type. If an oil and gas company decides to drill a well in a critical habitat that is occupied, the fee incurred could be as high as $20,000.
The lizard made its way to the forefront of political battles and was accused of placing thousands of jobs and the development of the oil and gas and agricultural industries in jeopardy as debate raged this year over federal protection of the species.
U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., along with U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M. praised the feds’ decision. The New Mexico senators, who have engaged with relevant stakeholders, were largely responsible for urging the Service to delay its decision to allow for further public comment.
“I hope the utilization of CCAs like this can be a model for the future when we get into conservation disagreements. This has proved that you can take one of the most contentious situations and move it to a win-win situation,”said Udall.
“This is a great example of how voluntary cooperative agreements are being used to help protect a habitat and a species, while allowing oil and gas development to continue in southeastern New Mexico,” Bingaman stated in a press release.
Pearce has long been at the forefront of the debate in Washington and New Mexico, ensuring the posting of the lizard received critical attention from his political agenda. Calling the agreements in place, “some of the most successful ever,” Pearce stated in a press release, “The willingness of New Mexicans and Texans to conserve the habitat and species serves as a fine example of what we can do when the federal government takes input from all sides, and tries to find common ground.”
Commissioner Greg Nibert, a member of one of several area county commissions and governmental agencies in Texas, which joined together in an effort to be at the forefront of the decision-making process, said, “Without the substantial community effort and the pushback that occurred I’m not sure we would’ve been successful.”
The agreements provide existing protection for the lesser prairie chicken. The chicken, often discussed in conjunction with the lizard, now awaits its fate on the endangered species list. Those familiar and involved with the lizard issue expect that the Service will announce the proposed listing of the chicken for publication in the federal register this August.
“In some of my emails today to some of the people who were engaged in the lizard issue, I told them that we’re pleased that this one has been decided and decided in our favor but that we need to be re-engaged as early as August to begin this process all over again with respect to the lesser prairie chicken,” Nibert said.