The dunes sagebrush lizard of the West Texas oil patch will not receive special protections as an endangered species, the Obama administration announced Wednesday.
The administration's surprising turn came two years after federal officials proposed the strongest level of protection under the Endangered Species Act for the rare sand-dwelling reptile, which has lost critical habitat to energy development and livestock grazing in West Texas and New Mexico.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the decision rested, in part, on the idea that conservation efforts by oil and gas companies and ranchers would help restore and maintain habitat for the lizard.
Salazar said he is "100 percent confident" that the voluntary agreements will work, but put the states and industry on notice that if conditions do not improve, the lizard could receive endangered-species protections.
"There is no doubt in my mind that these will be effectuated because the Endangered Species Act is still there," he said.
'A major victory'
The decision drew cheers from the oil and gas industry and state leaders who feared a slowdown in exploration and production because of an endangered-species listing. The area produces 1 million barrels of oil a day, officials said.
"This is a major victory for Texas jobs and our energy economy," said Comptroller Susan Combs, whose office enrolled nearly 250,000 acres in conservation pacts in an effort to avoid a listing. "This decision proves we don't have to choose between the environment and our economy, but can be good stewards of both."
The Texas Oil and Gas Association also praised the federal government for considering additional research of the species and its habitat. The Fish and Wildlife Service delayed the decision six months after Sen. John Cornyn and others pushed for better data.
"Research continued to reinforce that listing the lizard as an endangered species was unwarranted," said Deb Hastings, executive vice president of the industry association.
The 3-inch lizard lives only among stands of shinnery oak, a relatively rare tree that thrives in the dunes of West Texas and New Mexico. Beneath the tree, which is more like a bush in height, the reptile buries itself in the sand to avoid predators and regulate its body temperature.
The agreements require landowners to take a number of steps, from designating buffers around dunes where the lizards live to removing well pads and roads to recovering former habitat.
The agreements, in turn, shield them from liability for the accidental "taking" of a lizard.
Some environmentalists were troubled by the federal embrace of the conservation agreements, saying voluntary pacts could not be trusted.
"There is no species more deserving of federal protection than the dunes sagebrush lizard," said Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians, a conservation group. "Existing conservation measures, particularly in Texas, are so weak that I fear the species may become extirpated in parts of its remaining range."
The Environmental Defense Fund, meanwhile, said the ruling represented progress.
"The pro-active approach embraced here by industry, landowners and the Fish and Wildlife Service is an important component in meeting the needs of our nation in a way that benefits wildlife, is cost-effective and respects landowners," said David Festa, who leads the environmental group's land, water and wildlife program.
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