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Lizard causes big disruptions for Texas drillers

Deep in the West Texas sand dunes is something that some say could threaten the state' s oil and gas production: A tiny lizard.

But it' s not just any lizard: It' s a dunes sagebrush lizard, also known as the sand dune lizard.

This little brown reptile is a concern for state officials, who hope that federal officials don' t designate it an endangered species. That, they say, could disrupt oil and gas exploration in the heart of Texas' oil country, leading to higher gas prices and shrinking dollars for schools.

"It' s reptile dysfunction," said Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who oversees the permanent school and university funds, which get money from royalties and leases on some of the potentially affected land. "It has the potential to bring oil exploration and production to a halt."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has had the issue before it for about a decade, is considering protections because oil and gas exploration and ranching are shrinking the lizard' s habitat. A decision could come by year' s end.

The blunt-nosed lizard at the heart of the issue has bright yellow eyes but is barely as long as a person' s hand. The lizard is important prey for a number of other species, including some birds and mammals.

It can be found in the West Texas counties of Andrews, Crane, Gaines, Ward and Winkler -- part of the Permian Basin, known to petroleum officials as the most "prolific oil-producing region in onshore America" -- as well as in southeast New Mexico.

There it lives, in the shade of shinnery oak trees, which look like bushes and are found mainly in the sand dunes. The lizard lives only in dunes that have medium-size sand grains.

Environmentalists say the spiny lizard is in danger of extinction because its habitat has been disturbed or removed by oil and gas development. Shinnery oaks, for instance, have been destroyed by drillers, who clear space and move equipment. They have also been killed by ranchers, who say the plant can be poisonous to cattle.

The lizard has been a candidate for endangered status since 2001, when the Center for Biological Diversity asked the federal government to list it. But this proposal was moved forward at least in part because of a federal lawsuit by the environmental advocacy group WildEarth Guardians.

"I think the current federal proposal is based on a number of years of examining the status of the lizard," said Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. "It' s not a last-minute sort of proposal."

Patterson, who has compared the sand dune lizard to Godzilla for its ability to potentially freeze gas and oil work, said this fight is about more than just a reptile.

It' s about what he said is a new strategy to gain endangered status for many animals and essentially block industries from doing their work.

"You overwhelm Fish and Wildlife with requests ... and rather than do science on several hundred species, they just settle the lawsuit," he said.Patterson, who has held a sand dune lizard and said it actually is "a cute little bugger," is calling on federal officials to reject the proposed designation.

"The science is not complete, it' s out of date, and there' s no decent information that has been sufficient to warrant the designation," he said. "If the designation comes, and it isn' t based on sound science, we will file a lawsuit."

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, University of Texas System officials and Texas Association of Business President Bill Hammond also oppose the designation.

UT System officials manage more than 2.1 million acres for the benefit of the system, including acreage that could be a habitat for the lizard. They sent a letter to federal officials saying that listing the lizard as endangered is "at best premature" because that decision would be based on "faulty science, inadequate data and seriously erroneous assumptions."

Patterson said that a herpetologist from Texas A&M University has been hired and that studies of the lizard have been commissioned.

The Texas Endangered Species Task Force, primarily made up of property and business owners who could be affected, is developing conservation plans, said R.J. DeSilva, a spokesman for the Texas comptroller' s office.

"The goal is to have a plan by November," he said. "There' s a need to balance the development of the industry, and economic development in the industry, and take actions to mitigate and preserve the habitat."

This year, the Obama administration said a decade' s worth of petitions to add wildlife to the endangered species act would be addressed over the next six years.

About 1,400 plant and animal species are designated endangered. Officials work to protect their habitats and review what can be done. Several Texas Republicans in Congress, including Reps. Michael Conaway of Midland, Randy Neugebauer of Lubbock and Francisco Canseco of San Antonio, have asked colleagues to keep the lizard from being designated as endangered. Sen. John Cornyn filed an amendment to prevent federal officials from offering protections to the lizard.

"If the Obama administration has its way, this scaly political pawn will land on the Endangered Species List, without sufficient supporting research to back up the move, and effectively bring new and existing oil and gas production in parts of Texas and New Mexico to a screeching halt," he said in a statement.

Federal officials say they used the best science available and are working with companies to minimize problems or interruptions. Some petroleum companies have signed on to voluntary conservation agreements, agreeing to pay for habitat restoration and use techniques to lessen the impact on the lizards.

Kramer, of the Sierra Club, said he believes that state and industry officials are exaggerating the crisis.

"Practically every time there is a proposal, we get these people saying ... ' The sky is falling. This is going to be the end of civilization as we know it,' " Kramer said. "There is almost always an overreaction based upon their lack of understanding in which the species can be protected."

Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram



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