West Texas lizard could get federal protections – but oil & gas advocates are worried

For the second time in the last 13 years, the federal government is proposing protections for the dunes sagebrush lizard. Oil and gas companies have long feared this designation could cost the industry millions and slow production.

By Mitch Borden, Marfa Public RadioAugust 30, 2023 1:01 pm,

From Marfa Public Radio:

The roads outside of Monahans are busy as semi trucks pull in and out of sand mines. Over the years, this area, known for its dunes, has become busy. First it was the rush to the Permian Basin to frack oil over a decade ago and then, more recently, mines began to dig up sand needed for drilling.

But as these industries have thrived, the small dunes sagebrush lizard has become harder to find — pushing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose designating it as an endangered species.

According to Lee Fitzgerald, a biologist with Texas A&M University, protections for the lizard have been a long time coming. Fitzgerald has spent the last few decades researching the lizard and has seen their numbers plummet in that time.

“Just before our eyes we saw the lizards disappearing,” he said.

The approximately two-inch lizard makes its home in the dunes spread out over West Texas and New Mexico. It’s what is known as a habitat specialist, meaning it needs the specific environment created by the small shinnery oak trees covering dunes across the Permian Basin.

According to Fitzgerald, the species is sensitive and needs uninterrupted dunes to thrive, which is why he says the oil and gas industry’s fragmenting of the Permian Basin has had such a dramatic effect on the dunes sagebrush lizard.

Over the last decade, the Permian Basin has become one of the most prolific oil fields in the world. As the oil and gas industry expanded across West Texas and New Mexico so did its roads, pump jacks and sand mines.

Mines that dig up sand needed for oil drilling descended on West Texas around 2017, putting more pressure on the dunes sagebrush lizard.
Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

In his research, Fitzgerald has observed how the industry’s growth has affected the lizard’s population.

“Normally, throughout the year you see a lot of adults then you see hatchlings,” he explained. “In the places where the landscape was fragmented, they were just barely hanging on and blinking out.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service echoed this finding in their proposal to designate the species as endangered. The agency says the dunes sagebrush lizard is “functionally extinct” across nearly half of its range largely because of oil and gas activities.

But oil and gas advocates, like Ben Shepperd, have their doubts. Shepperd’s the president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, which represents hundreds of companies.

“I don’t believe they can tell you how many lizards there are today,” he said. “How many lizards there were two years ago, 10 years ago, nor what distinguishes a healthy population.”

Shepperd fears that if the federal government establishes protections for the lizard, it would mean companies would be required to obtain permits to operate where lizards may be found. He says that would slow down oil production.

“What we’re talking about is shutting down drilling activity in the region,” he explained, “Laying people off, not completing pipeline projects, let alone the effects on ranching, farming and other activities.”

While Shepperd says new regulations could cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars, the lizard’s habitat is estimated to take up less than 4% of the roughly 75,000 miles that make up the Permian Basin, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The shinnery oaks that dunes sagebrush lizards rely on may not be large, but forests of the small trees cover the dunes of West Texas and New Mexico like the ones found at Monahans Sandhills State Park.
Mitch Borden / Marfa Public Radio

Melinda Taylor, an attorney who specializes in the Endangered Species Act doesn’t take the claims by the oil and gas industry very seriously.

“I don’t see a world where this shuts down either sand mining or oil and gas drilling in the Permian Basin,” she said. “The fact is there are not that many lizards left and there’s not enough good habitat.”

This isn’t the federal government’s first attempt to declare the lizard endangered. There’s been concern for the species since the 80’s and at the end of 2010, the Obama administration put forward the first proposal to declare it an endangered species.

However, that proposal was withdrawn after the state of Texas agreed to create a conservation agreement with oil and gas companies. However, that plan was largely ineffective and efforts to revise fell through, according to Taylor.

Eventually, two environmental groups petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2018 to reexamine the dunes sagebrush lizard’s status — which led to the renewed effort to declare it as endangered.

“One of the most tragic aspects of this is the state of Texas, the industry has had an opportunity and tried and none of it has really worked,” explained Taylor.

Industry advocates have asked for more time to respond to the proposal, which was granted on Tuesday. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has now extended their public comment period on designating the dunes sagebrush lizard an endangered species until Oct. 2.

If the progress proceeds as scheduled, the federal government could issue its decision on protections for the lizard by next summer.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and marfapublicradio.org. Thanks for donating today.