Citing an unprecedented effort to conserve the habitat of the dunes sagebrush lizard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday that it will not include the lizard under the Endangered Species Act.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said the decision was based largely on a conservation effort in New Mexico and West Texas that has seen 650,000 acres, or 88 percent of the lizard's habitat, enrolled in conservation agreements. It is an effort that was not only historic but should serve as a template for future efforts to conserve wildlife in other parts of the country, he said.
"Because of the unprecedented commitment to voluntary conservation that will ensure long-term conservation of the species and its habitat, we have determined the lizard is no longer in danger of extinction and not likely to become endangered in the near future," said Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wednesday's announcement drew praise from area oil and gas operators.
"Today is a momentous day in the history of the U.S. and the Permian Basin," said Ben Shepperd, president of the Permian Basin Petroleum Association. "We applaud the actions of Secretary Salazar and Fish and Wildlife Director Ashe for their courageous and, we believe, correct decision not to list the dunes sagebrush lizard."
ConocoPhillips welcomed the decision.
"We are committed to protecting the environment that we share, which is why we participate in programs that encourage innovation and conservation like the voluntary conservation agreements now in place in New Mexico and Texas to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard," said spokeswoman Davy Kong. "Responsible development of U.S. oil and gas resources creates jobs, promotes economic growth and improves U.S. energy security."
Shepperd said conservation initiatives and science played roles in the decision.
"As an industry comprised of scientists, we always look toward the best science and that includes conservation," he said. "We also continue to believe the best science showed the lizard does not warrant listing. The lizard is fine; its habitat is in good shape. Frankly, if the evidence had shown otherwise, it's likely the Fish and Wildlife Service would have listed the lizard."
The decision "is going to save jobs," said Doug Robison, PBPA chair. "That was the primary focus of the PBPA -- to protect jobs, protect workers and yet do so in a manner that protects habitat."
The decision was criticized by some environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, which blasted what it called a Republican-fueled misinformation campaign exaggerating potential job losses and the reliance on voluntary conservation agreements.
"Today's decision was based on politics, not science," said Taylor McKinnon, with the center. "By caving to the oil and gas industry, the Obama administration is doing wrong by this rare lizard. It's ignoring science, and it's setting a dangerous precedent for other declining species."
"Biologically, there is no species more deserving of listing than the dunes sagebrush lizard," said Mark Salvo, wildlife program director for WildEarth Guardians. "We hope the species can persist without federal protection."
He said the lizard's habitat covers only a tiny patch of the Permian Basin, and if the reptile had been listed, oil and gas drilling would have been unaffected by conservation actions in more than 99 percent of the region.
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