Photo Credit: Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish & Wildlife

Before the oil giants arrived in the Permian Basin, the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard only had to contend with the resident vipers, an easy feat for a skittering, four-inch lizard that finds refuge under the shinnery oak and the blowouts of the sloping dunes. Now, this vulnerable species faces off against the drilling rigs, the oilfield roustabouts, and the ceaseless traffic that the oil-rich basin has attracted. The unwelcome encroachment of the lizard’s habitat was the subject of a recent Public Comment Period and a decision from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is pending as to whether disturbance of this species will be endorsed by the government.

The proposed “Enhancement of Survival Permit” and the supporting “Candidate Conservation Agreement Assurance (CCAA)” appear to subvert the Endangered Species Act of 1973. On December 21, Environmental Review Inc. submitted comments regarding apparent loopholes and uncertainties with the applicant’s ability to successfully conserve the species under the proposed agreement. The supposed intent of the drafted CCAA is to provide positive conservation outcomes while still allowing development activities within the specified areas. 

But without the oil rigs or the grazing livestock, the Permian Basin would be quiet, peaceful, and seemingly empty, unless anyone looked beneath the shinnery oak. Under the shrubbery’s protection, Dunes Sagebrush Lizards scurry over the sand, looking for the best places to burrow. They are a fastidious homemaker, inspecting even the size of the sand grains before claiming a place amongst the oak’s root system. When not in the burrows, the lizards reside inside the blowouts, bowl-shaped depressions found under the shinnery oak, hunting for any insect it can find during the day and seeking refuge from any nocturnal predators once evening falls.

Found only in western Texas and southern New Mexico, these spiny brown lizards only live for one or two years, and females often only produce eggs once or twice a year. Their egg clutches contain about 3-6 eggs, and the offspring emerge in late July and September. As if their lower reproductive rates are not daunting enough, when the offspring emerge they must combat the high temperatures, the food scarcity, and the large predators that also reside in sand dunes. The shinnery oak offers the Dunes Sagebrush Lizards protection from hungry vipers and necessary shade to cool off and avoid the sun. 

Their habitat has been under attack for decades: their precious shinnery oak is removed because it is toxic to livestock, their prey (beetles, ants, caterpillars, and other insects) have been severely reduced from years of pesticide control, and now the growing oil and gas development has become the most severe habitat threat to an already vulnerable species.

If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approves, the proposed permit and CCAA documents would authorize “incidental take” of this lizard species in six Texas counties. With no federal protection and more oil developers arriving on the horizon, the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard’s  “final stand” is reminiscent of the last defenders in the Siege of the Alamo. The survival of many Dunes Sagebrush Lizards (Sceloporus arenicolus) hangs in the balance, their fate tied to the stakeholders’ commitment to ensuring species conservation.

Even if the species becomes formally listed as an “Endangered Species” during the 23-year term of the proposed conservation agreement, oil field developers will still be allowed to continue operations within the habitat. Environmental Reviewer, Sydney James, writes, “Twenty three years is too long of a commitment, regardless of listing, to this method, as it should be reassessed with time, regularly, with the improvement of data referenced in this document as expected by the fees and associated research.” Ms. James argues that given today’s changing climate, growing energy needs, and the species’ extremely short life span the proposed application and conservation plan failed to prove that it (1) supports a net conservation benefit and (2) does not contribute to a reduction in the survival and recovery of any species. 

Furthermore, Ms. James explained that the government’s administrator who would provide oversight of the conservation agreement terms would need to consider and respond to the recommendations of an Adaptive Management Committee. However there is concern that the administration of the conservation agreement may become arbitrary since there is no written obligation to adhere to the recommendation of the Committee. 

For these reasons, Ms.James does not support approval of the proposed permit and instead supports the No Action alternative which is also being considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. To read the full version of Environmental Review Inc. Comments dated 12-21-20, click here: Dunes Sagebrush Lizard Habitat, Public Comment.

Environmental Review, Inc. is a Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation http://