It wasn’t too hard for the Fish and Wildlife Service to decide the fate of 92 freshwater snails, or 17 dragonflies, or indeed more than 500 species over the past year. But when it comes to the dunes sagebrush lizard, trouble looms.
The small spiny reptile seeks refuge from the hot sun and potential predators in the shinnery oak dunes of southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. Ranchers have been clearing the oak shrubs, and oil and gas companies are drilling in the dunes. If the lizard is designated as an endangered species, some of those activities could be in jeopardy.
The lizard’s future is among the first in a series of wrenching tests threatening what has been a year-long cease-fire in the fight over endangered-species listings.
Since two environmental groups reached landmark settlement agreements last year with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the government has resolved dozens of long-standing cases. State and industry officials who spent years largely resisting conservation efforts are now scrambling to protect imperiled species in the hopes of keeping them off the federal endangered-species list.
But now the Obama administration must decide whether to provide federal protection to a handful of animals that share their habitat with oil and gas rigs, cattle and wind turbines. And groups on both sides of the debate are skeptical of whether federal officials can make fair decisions — several of which will have ramifications for swing states in the West — in a presidential election year.
“Clearly the notion that there’s a truce is very fragile,” said Defenders of Wildlife President Jamie Rappaport Clark, who headed the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton.
According to last year’s settlements, WildEarth Guardians agreed to curtail its petitions and lawsuits aimed at the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity agreed to space out its litigation, in exchange for a commitment that the agency will issue protection decisions for 841 plants and animals.
“This settlement gave us the breathing room to really focus on conservation, which is really what the [Endangered Species Act] is about,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “We’re really able to focus our conservation effort.”
In fiscal year 2011, the agency made more positive listing decisions, 539, than in any year in the law’s 39-year history. But those decisions — that a species deserved federal protection or warranted further review — covered those whose conservation did not have huge economic implications, such as mollusks in the Pacific Northwest and springsnails in the West’s Great Basin region.
“It’s the calm before the storm,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The dunes sagebrush lizard
The storm may start with the dunes sagebrush lizard, first listed as a candidate for federal protection in 1982. Since then its habitat has been reduced by 40 percent. Fish and Wildlife proposed listing the animal, also known as the sand dunes lizard, as endangered in December 2010.
The agency was set to issue a final decision a year later but delayed doing so by six months in the face of fierce congressional resistance. Now it must decide by mid-June what to do about the lizard. Some of its habitat overlaps with the oil-rich Permian Basin, which produces 17 percent of the nation’s annual onshore oil supply.
Permian Basin Petroleum Association President Ben Shepperd, whose group represents 900 oil and gas producers in New Mexico and Texas, estimates that the association has spent between $500,000 and $1 million on consultants who have conducted their own census of the lizard and challenged several aspects of agency’s listing proposal.
“The evidence does not point to a threat to this species,” Shepperd said, adding that his members fear this decision — along with ones on the lesser prairie chicken and spot-tailed earless lizard, also mandated under the settlement agreement — could restrict oil and gas drilling. “We think the impact is in the billions of dollars.”
Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.), who has threatened to block Fish and Wildlife from listing the dunes sagebrush lizard, said the agency needs to prove it can do a better job of taking economic considerations into account in listing decisions.
“We have to factor that into what we can and cannot do,” he said.
The agency cannot take economics into consideration when making a listing decision, though it can factor in economic impact when drafting plans to conserve listing species.
“The listing decision is a scientific diagnosis,” Ashe said. “Once that’s been made, you can take into account other factors.”