Often at odds, the federal government and Texas came together last year
to rescue the dunes sagebrush lizard from the brink of extinction.
But the deal, held up as a model of cooperation, may do more to shield energy companies from scrutiny than to protect the imperiled reptile dwelling in the West Texas oil patch.
The 14-month-old Texas Conservation Plan is threatened by potential conflicts of interest and a lack of transparency, while an advocacy group says there is evidence of oil and gas development in the tiny lizard's habitat that has gone unreported to and unnoticed by state and federal officials.
So far, the state's monthly reports to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that energy companies and other landowners have harmed only 1 1/2 acres of the lizard's habitat, which stretches across the vast Permian Basin, one the nation's most prolific oil and gas fields.
The number suggests that people are avoiding areas where the lizards live, but federal regulators do not know for certain. A foundation created by lobbyists for the oil and gas industry monitors and records disturbances to the reptile's habitat for the state, while Texas law prevents the Fish and Wildlife Service, among others, from seeing key documents to verify the reports.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service has no idea what is going on and has no ability to follow up," said Ya-Wei Li, a staff attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "They only know what Texas is telling them."
Federal agency sued
Defenders of Wildlife has sued the Fish and Wildlife Service over the Texas plan, which was cited as the reason for not protecting the rare sand-dwelling lizard as an endangered species. The federal agency declined comment because of the pending litigation.
Under its agreement with Texas, the Fish and Wildlife Service would not require protections for the lizard, so long as the state took steps to preserve its habitat in the Permian Basin. Both sides heralded the deal in June 2012 as a new model for saving troubled species without crippling the region's economy.
At the time, then-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 creature. But he put the states and industry on notice that if conditions do not improve, the lizard could receive endangered-species protections.
The 3-inch lizard lives only among stands of shinnery oak, a relatively rare tree that thrives in the sand 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 Texas plan does not restrict development, but caps disturbances to 1 percent of the lizard's range during the first three years.
The plan is voluntary and does not require participants to adopt any specific conservation measures. Ten energy companies and ranchers, controlling a combined 110,117 acres of lizard habitat, enrolled to avoid stricter federal rules for protecting the reptile.
Even then, about 45 percent of the lizard's habitat in Texas is not enrolled in the program.
One biologist on duty
Those who enroll must file a certificate of inclusion with the Texas
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