Dunes Sagebrush Lizard, © Mark L Watson/Flickr

The Truth about the Texas Lizard “Conservation” Plan

Ya-Wei Li, Policy Advisor, Endangered Species Conservation

Crane County, Texas is a land peppered with oil and gas wells, connected by arteries of pipelines and dirt roads. It’s one of the top counties for oil and gas production in Texas. It’s also where the dunes sagebrush lizard is trying to persist amidst all the mayhem. Last June, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided that it no longer needed to list the lizard under the Endangered Species Act, partly because it had signed a conservation plan (called the Texas Habitat Conservation Plan) for the lizard with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Earlier this year, we explained why the plan can’t protect the lizard. For one reason, it doesn’t describe how landowners will protect the species from oil and gas development, off-road vehicle use and other activities that can squish lizards. Without this information, the Service has absolutely no idea whether the plan will live up to its promises.

The Comptroller certainly believes it will. Ever since it signed the plan in April 2012, it’s been reporting every month to the Service that not a single acre of enrolled habitat has been disturbed. That’s right, nothing across over 138,640 acres in some of the most productive oil and gas counties in Texas. Sound too good to be true? We thought so too, so we launched our own investigation.

My colleague, Andy Shepard, and I compared aerial images taken immediately after an area was enrolled in the Texas plan, with images taken four and then thirteen months later. What we discovered were multiple instances of habitat destruction that the Comptroller was required to report to the Service, but never did. We’re talking about new oil drilling pads, dirt roads and land clearings. You can see all the before and after images in our newly-released report and supplemental presentation, which show the images in higher quality. As an example, the images below show three oil well pads, each about 400 feet wide, created after the plan went into effect.

©Defenders of Wildlife

©Defenders of Wildlife

©Defenders of Wildlife

©Defenders of Wildlife

A website that collects Texas oil and gas permitting information (www.texas-drilling.com/crane-county) places a red dot on all the areas in Crane County with recently issued oil and gas drilling permits. As expected, a dot appears over each of these well pads. Only a few hundred feet away, we found more new oil pads and roads that apparently don’t exist – at least, according to the Comptroller they don’t.

The story gets even better. You might be wondering how the Comptroller keeps track of which areas are destroyed by oil and gas development. A non-profit organization called the Texas Habitat Conservation Foundation was created to collect and report this information to the Comptroller, and to administer other crucial parts of the Texas Plan. As it turns out, however, this so-called “conservation” foundation is directed solely by lobbyists for the Texas Oil and Gas Association. Legally, every time oil and gas developers disturb lizard habitat, they are required to pay a fee under the Texas plan to offset the impacts of their development activity. If no disturbance is reported, then there are no fees to pay. It’s hard not to suspect a conflict of interest here.

Dune sagebrush lizard (©Mark L. Watson)

Dune sagebrush lizard (©Mark L. Watson)

Monetary suspicions aside, without knowing how much habitat is destroyed, the Service can’t effectively ensure that the lizard is protected. Under the Texas plan, habitat destruction is capped at one percent of the total habitat for the species within the first three years. If this limit is exceeded, the Service will likely have to reconsider listing the lizard. But without a system to verify the Comptroller’s claims about habitat disturbance, the Service might not know if and when this one percent limit is exceeded.

We hope our investigation sends a signal far and wide that conservation plans like this one where the Service is completely in the dark about plan compliance simply don’t work. At the most basic level, a plan shouldn’t leave the public or the Service in the dark about how it will protect a species – especially if the plan is used as an excuse to avoid listing an imperiled species. And if a plan relies on self-reporting, it shouldn’t be performed solely by lobbyists for the industry that poses the greatest threat to the species. Fortunately, tools like GIS mapping allow us to shed light on some of the darkest corners of how states try to avoid listing an endangered species.

22 Responses to “The Truth about the Texas Lizard “Conservation” Plan”

  1. Sophia Moore.

    Unfreakinbelievable. How is it possible they can keep getting away with this destruction. Thanks for the post Ya-Wei Li.

  2. Elizabeth O'Connor

    The Dune Sagebrush Lizard needs protection against the ones sworn to protect them – the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts and the bogus lobbyist organization, The Texas Habitat Conservation Plan. They must be protected once again by the Endangered Species Act. These big money chasing giants in the oil and gas industry can not be allowed to ignore even the smallest among us! Elizabeth O’Connor

  3. Maggie Frazier

    As with all of the oil & gas industries “self monitoring” doesn’t seem to work, now does it? Why are these corporations not held to the same regulations any other company is? There sure does need to be some changes made – especially with the lobbyists access to our politicians!

  4. Art deVitalis

    This Texas lizard deal is really simple. The Bubbas that run this state are not concerned in the least in with wild critters unless they can hunt them with their helicopter gunships. And besides this is God’s Country. The third reason is to quote our two honorable US Senators: this isn’t the “best science” or “sound science”.

  5. Yenisel Montane

    So over lobbyists & them covering up things they should clearly be held accountable for. There should be a petition in place to gain control back from the comptroller considering they’re conflict of interest with the third party. I’d sign! Thanks for your information regarding this issue we just need to now put action behind this informatation for the sake of the sage brush lizard!

  6. Pamela Cibbarelli

    What a shame! Employees at an office empowered to save a species thinks it is better to lie and cheat rather than to help. They are not to be trusted.

  7. Susan D. Martin

    “How is it possible they can keep getting away with this destruction?” The answer in one word: M-O-N-E-Y…






    GOD HELP US………….

  9. Edh Stanley

    More of something that they grow Big in Texas; in this case, horesh*t…

  10. Nick Seaman

    Letting entrenched oil industry representatives monitor activity is like leaving the fox in charge of the hen house. Who allows that except someone who has no intention to make good on a legal and moral obligation and indeed whose only intention is to flagrantly overturn alegal construct.

  11. Sam

    I don’t quite see how a “fee’ will help stop destruction that has already taken place. The only response would be for someone (a company?) to buy the land, and leave it well alone. The way the entire planet should have been left well alone and free from ‘drilling’ of any kind…

  12. Donna Scheff

    it seems the endangered species list is meaningless anymore. There situation is lied about, their habitat destroyed. The government seems intent on eliminating their endangered status to assist special interest groups

  13. John D Coffey, JD

    This is another example of The Endangered Species Eradication Plan, which is pursued with vigor by developers of so-called Green energy in the Mojave. Six endangered species are under attack, including the Desert Tortoise, Fringe Toed Lizard, Kit Fox, Big Horn Sheep,Kangaroo Rat, and the Mojave Green rattlesnake. BLM and DOE just want to take care of cronys of Obama, and get rid of the “nuisance critters” as fast as possible to ramrod project approvals. We need to have a nationwide federal class action lawsuit to bring this fast-buck driven genocide to a halt. Please help Defenders of Wildlife while there is still something to save! Thanks for listening.

  14. Bob Sloan

    The State of Texas will only protect wildlife they are unable to make serious money on. It is okay to come into Texas and slaughter as many animals as you can afford, but pick a snake up off the road and you are a criminal in Texas. The TP&W should be defunded and dissolved.

  15. L Berry

    First off I’m glad that this report was done and that hopefully the lizard will get some much needed protection. Secondly, I live in Texas and we aren’t all a bunch of stupid, animal killing hicks. I find it highly offensive to the people here making that generalization. I do my best to recycle, sign almost every animal and environmental petition I get and love the outdoors. I wish there was a petition to kick out all the rude judgmental people here. And I am not just some freak either. There are a lot of people who like the outdoors without the oil fields mucking everything up. Try looking at the news for Denton if you doubt it. They just passed a no fracking bill for their town. One of the first in the nation I might add.

  16. L Berry

    And whoever moderates these comments-shame on you for allowing such rude remarks to be posted. Perhaps you should find someone who can do the job the right way if you’re going to let that trash get published. I’m looking at Bob Sloan , Edh Stanley, Art deVitalis, and especially Aviana 13’s comments. It’s sad that I have to stick up for the decent people of my state instead of focusing on the lizard.

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