Desert panorama, © Gary Ferguson / istock

A Small Lizard with a Big Problem

Will Lutz, Senior Director of Communications 

It may be small in stature, but the dunes sagebrush lizard could have a big say in how this country protects endangered species. That’s because this little lizard finds itself at the epicenter of a key fight over how to best to enlist states and private parties as partners in species conservation.

It all comes down to one question: how can you say a creature will be protected if you don’t know what measures will be taken to protect it?

Dune sagebrush lizard (©Mark L. Watson)

Dune sagebrush lizard (©Mark L. Watson)

You see, in late 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) concluded that the dunes sagebrush lizard warranted listing as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Since the lizard makes its home in oil-rich counties in Texas and neighboring New Mexico, locals immediately feared that listing the lizard would interfere with drilling operations. So these two states quickly started talking to stakeholders with an eye toward finding ways to avoid listing the lizard. Texas, for example, helped craft what’s known as a “candidate conservation agreement with assurances” (CCAA) that would enlist landowners in conservation efforts and possibly preclude the need to formally list the lizard. And when they were done, they basically said, “we got this covered, no need to list the lizard.”

Problem is, Texas won’t share any details from those landowner agreements so FWS doesn’t know exactly how they intend to protect the lizard. FWS won’t even be allowed to monitor the lizard’s progress. But it gets even weirder. Even after having the door shut in their face, FWS said, “Ok, that’s good enough for us,” and declared the lizard didn’t to be listed as endangered after all.

Huh? Texas won’t tell you how the lizard will be protected and yet you turn around and say Texas’ protections are enough? Seemed strange to us too, so Defenders dug deeper.

In a March report [PDF], Defenders describes in painstaking detail the serious problems with the FWS relying on the Texas agreement to support its decision. We also recommend eight specific improvements to ESA policy to address these and other problems, so they are not repeated in future listing decisions for candidate species. Some of these improvements can be implemented before FWS decides whether to list a candidate species, while others can be done as part of the actual listing decision for maximum flexibility. Defenders has also turned to the courts for help in holding FWS accountable for this disastrous decision, filing an early-March notice of our intent to sue if FWS’ decision stands.

Agreements between states and private landowners can be extremely valuable when it comes to protecting at-risk species, but what the FWS has agreed to here just doesn’t fit the bill. And with listing decisions for several high-profile species around the corner, the fate of the little dunes sagebrush lizard could well determine the fate of many others critters on the brink.