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What’s up with the lizard?

By   /   May 9, 2012  /   No Comments

In little more than a month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has to decide whether to place the dunes sagebrush lizard on the federal government’s Endangered Species List.

It’s a decision that is sure to inflame oil and gas industry supporters in New Mexico and Texas if the lizard is approved while angering environmentalists if the listing is denied.

Dunes sagebrush lizard

The Obama administration, sensitive to recent attacks from Republicans on soaring gas prices, seems to be trying to find a compromise. But will that satisfy either camp?

The issue is coming back to the forefront as the June 14 deadline nears and in recent days, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe have been making the rounds with oil and gas industry officials in the Permian Basin, the site the three-inch reptile calls home amid the shinnery oak in the dry terrain that makes up West Texas and the Oil Patch of New Mexico.

Environmentalists say the lizard’s habitat needs to be protected and say the area involved “will have a negligible impact on land owners … even oil and natural gas producers,” Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians said in a phone interview with Capitol Report New Mexico.

But conservative legislators counter by saying that an endangered species listing could permanently harm the financial health of the area.

“Regardless of the claims of this radical environmentalist group, the economic uncertainty caused in the region by this factor alone will have a damaging economic effect,” a spokesman for Congressman Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico) said in an e-mail last year.

Even New Mexico Democrats have been trying to delay the listing as both US senators from New Mexico — Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall — earlier this year called on Interior and Fish and Wildlife to find an alternative — conservation agreements with oil and gas producers.

Interiror Secretary Ken Salazar

And that’s what Ashe and Salazar have been touting in stops in the Texas, New Mexico and Utah this week.

The conservation agreements agreed to by 29 oil and gas companies and 39 ranchers in New Mexico are designed to avoid disturbing the lizard’s habitat while still allowing for development. If given formal approval, landowners will receive assurances that no additional conservation steps above and beyond those contained in the agreement will be required.

Under conservation agreements, even if the lizard gets an endangered listing landowners could continue to develop oil and gas if they take steps to ensure the long-term health of lizard populations.

“We’re extremely supportive” of the program calling for conservation agreements, Wally Drangmeister of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said in a phone interview Wednesday (May 9).

But in the tug of war between industry and environmentalists, if one side likes a proposal does that mean the other automatically hates it?

Salvo of WildEarth Guardians was guarded Wednesday, saying, “The dunes sagebrush lizard warrants listing under the [Endangered Species Act] … we won’t attempt to guess what decision will be made … we’re glad that the process is working.”

Salazar and Ashe certainly indicate that they think conservation agreements can be effective.

“I commend oil and gas operators in Texas and New Mexico for their voluntary participation in conservation agreements to protect this ancient landscape,” Salazar said at a meeting at a ConocoPhillips site in West Texas this week, “and I encourage their continued stewardship efforts as we pursue balanced energy development.”

To show that the Obama administration is not anti-industry, Salazar hailed a decision to OK a plan by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to sink more than 3,500 natural gas wells in eastern Utah, after the company agreed to environmental safeguards that aim to protect the local air and water.

And in a conference call with reporters Wednesday Ashe talked about the buffer zones that conservation agreements call for as well as funding for research and protection (such as removing mesquite that harms shinnery oak and degrades the dunes sagebrush lizard’s habitat) that landowners are required to pay.

Is this one of those extremely rare instances where both industry and environmental groups get along?

“Some environmentalists will view [conservation agreements] as a reasonable compromise,” one industry supporter predicted, “while others might get angry” if the feds stop short of enforcing protection efforts to the highest degree.

Regardless, don’t be surprised if it all ends up in court.

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Rob Nikolewski is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org based in Santa Fe, N.M. Contact him at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @NMWatchdog.

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