Two conservation groups on Tuesday asked the federal government for protection of the dunes sagebrush lizard whose habitat has been disturbed by the Permian Basin frac sand mining boom.
The environmental organizations — The Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife — petitioned for a threatened or endangered listing for the tiny lizard under the Endangered Species Act, something they say should have happened years ago but didn’t because of political pressure.
The dunes sagebrush lizard lives among shinnery oak dunes in West Texas and eastern New Mexico. It burrows into the fine sand that’s increasingly sought for fracking oil wells.
“Really what pushed us over the edge in the last few months was the recent expansion of sand mining in the lizard habitat in Texas,” said Ya-Wei Li, director of the Center for Conservation Innovation for Defenders of Wildlife, adding that his organization has used satellite imagery to track the encroachment of the mining operations on lizard habitat. “We are really concerned about the direction those projects are going. If they do not actually avoid or reduce the impact on the lizard, the lizard could very well blank out in Texas.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the species as endangered in 2010 but withdrew the proposal in 2012, after the development of the Texas Conservation Plan, which relied on volunteer participants.
But officials with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, which oversees endangered species, now says that conservation plan was flawed. The comptroller’s office is overhauling the Texas Conservation Plan crafted to conserve the critter.
Even though it did not threaten to immediately curb sand mining operations, the Tuesday petition filed by the environmental groups created the prospect of a legal battle over and renewed questions about environmental risk for the sand mining industry that has grappled with concern about the lizard for months. Several sand mining companies have announced voluntary measures to conserve the lizard habitat.
Former Comptroller Susan Combs worked with the oil industry to craft the Texas Conservation Plan. Today Combs is the acting assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks with the U.S. Department of the Interior — a role that oversees federal wildlife policy.
Meanwhile, the comptroller’s office, now led by Glenn Hegar, told Fish and Wildlife in August that sand mining operations “could significantly impact” the lizard’s habitat, threatening the voluntary state plan,” and that “destruction of that habitat has already begin.”
The Texas Oil and Gas Association objected to the petition, arguing in a statement that it was really meant to shut down oil and gas production.
“Like previous attempts to list the dunes sagebrush lizard, this filing has nothing to do with the lizard’s habitat,” said Todd Staples, the organization’s president, in a statement. “These groups routinely use the federal government to raise money to fund an anti-oil and gas agenda, wasting tax dollars and eroding our national energy and economic security.”