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Sand Dune Lizard Proposed for Federal Protection

Scientists have Warned for Over a Decade that Species Could Go Extinct

Santa Fe, NM—The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) today proposed to list the sand dune lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus) as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The proposal comes 9 years after the Service made it a candidate for ESA protection; 13 years after scientists warned that it may be too late to save the lizard from extinction; and 28 years after the Service first recognized the species may be imperiled.

“The sand dune lizard badly needs federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. While we welcome this proposal, it is more than a decade overdue, and the species has only declined during that time. The lizard faces an urgent situation,” stated John Horning of WildEarth Guardians.

The Service placed the lizard on the ESA candidate list in October 2001, but the species has since been caught up in the general lack of progress in the endangered species listing program nationwide. Interior Secretary Salazar has listed just four new species in the continental U.S. since assuming office despite more than 250 species awaiting ESA protection. No species has been listed in the Southwest Region of the Service, which has purview over the lizard, since 2005.

WildEarth Guardians (Guardians) filed a formal petition in April 2008 urging the Service to emergency list the lizard under the ESA given its severe biological imperilment. In response, the Service stated in June 2008 that it was in the process of proposing the species for listing. Today’s proposal comes 2.5 years later. The Service expended agency resources to approve a “candidate conservation agreement” in December 2008, which aimed to avoid listing the lizard. Guardians critiqued the agreement due to its premise of withholding ESA protection for a species that scientists have long feared might go extinct and its lack of enforceable, adequate provisions.

The sand dune lizard is the second most geographically restricted lizard in North America and is found only in southeastern New Mexico and west Texas. Its range overlies the Permian Basin, one of the most active oil and gas fields in the country. Oil and gas development and the removal of shinnery oak are considered leading threats to the sand dune lizard. Threats to the species are on the rise, including toxic fumes emitted from oil and gas drilling; use of herbicides by the  Bureau of Land Management to control vegetation within the lizard’s range; a failure of state and federal agencies to restrain oil and gas development; and habitat loss and probable range contraction in Texas.

Sand dune lizards are seldom found more than six feet away from a shinnery oak plant. Studies have shown that applying herbicides (such as tebuthiuron) to shinnery oak in sand dune lizard habitat causes a 70-94% decline in lizard populations. Ranchers and federal agencies have engaged in shinnery oak poisoning throughout the range of the species.

Other research has shown that lizard populations drop 25% when oil and gas well densities exceed 13 wells per square mile, and lizards also experience local population decline when there is even one well present. Guardians found that 25% of the lizard’s range contains 13 or more wells per square mile, and 61% of the lizard's range contains 1 or more wells per square mile. A band of intense oil and gas development threatens to sever northern and southern portions of the lizard’s range in the Mescalero Sands area, the heart of the species range in New Mexico.

In 1997, University of New Mexico researchers wrote that it might be too late to prevent the sand dune lizard’s extinction. The Service has repeatedly quoted the scientists’ prediction in periodic memoranda since the lizard was made a candidate in 2001.

WildEarth Guardians, which has offices in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, protects and restores wildlife, wild rivers and wild places in the American West.

For more information or to obtain other background documents, please contact John Horning at or 505-988-9126 x 1153.


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