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Lizard Listing at Center of Debate

By Rene Romo
Journal Southern Bureau
          LAS CRUCES — A short, drab lizard is creating quite a dustup in the state's oil patch.
        Rallies. YouTube videos. Resolutions.
        At issue is whether the dunes sagebrush lizard should be added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species list.
        "Most of the oil and gas jobs in southeast New Mexico are at risk," says New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce, who will headline a rally in Roswell on Thursday to oppose the lizard's potential listing.
        "Irresponsible, unbalanced overregulation limits the amount of energy produced, which kills jobs, causes severe budget problems in the state, and increases costs to citizens," Pearce said in a news release. "In this time of high unemployment, we can, and must, do better."
        Meanwhile, the lizard is appearing on YouTube. One video portrayed it as Godzilla. The website of Penasco Valley Telecommunications, a Roswell-based telephone company, says: "Listing the species has the potential to jeopardize nearly all the oil and gas jobs in southeast New Mexico."
        "There is just no data to support that," said Michelle Shaughnessy, assistant regional director for ecological services in Fish and Wildlife's Southwest district. "There are lots of people saying the listing will close down oil and gas. ... This is absolutely not true."
        The head of the Fish and Wildlife must decide on the lizard's status by Dec. 14. The agency is hosting public hearings on the listing proposal today in Midland, Texas, and at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Eastern New Mexico University Performing Arts Center in Roswell.
        The rally is at the Great Southwest Aviation hangar at Roswell International Air Center at 5 p.m.
        Spokeswoman Charna Lefton said the Fish and Wildlife Service "really believes that economic development and conservation are not diametrically opposed concepts."
        Rather than halting oil and gas production and ranching, Fish and Wildlife officials said, listing the lizard will require the Bureau of Land Management, which controls most of the land containing the lizard's habitat of sand dunes fortified by short shinnery oak, to consult with Fish and Wildlife to ensure that business activities do not kill the lizard or damage the dunes.
        "It would result in coming up with conservation measures to avoid" the killing of lizards, said Fish and Wildlife biologist Debra Hill. "But there are tools in the Endangered Species Act ... to allow activity to continue. It doesn't mean we stop everything. It means we use the tools available."
        Fish and Wildlife has been studying the lizard's status since 1982. In 2001, the agency ranked the lizard No. 2 on its prioritized candidate list, and in 2004 the agency concluded that listing was "warranted but precluded" by other priorities.
        The brown lizard, which grows no more than 3 inches long, is considered a "habitat specialist" that can only thrive in a particular sand dune environment. Federal biologists have concluded the lizard's survival has been threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, caused mainly by oil and gas development, off-road vehicles, and the eradication of shinnery oak by herbicide applications to create pasture for cattle.
        Suitable habitat, which covered 1 million acres in southeast New Mexico in 1982, has declined by 40 percent. According to the BLM, two-thirds of occupied or suitable habitat in New Mexico has been fragmented by roads and more than 5,900 oil well pads or injection wells.
        Despite concerns about the potential economic impact of an endangered species listing, the decision cannot take economic considerations into account at this stage.
        Nicole Rosmarino of the conservation group WildEarth Guardians said it is "really dangerous" for Pearce to hammer away at "political considerations," by stoking fears of job losses among constituents, when the issue before FWS is whether the lizard's precarious status warrants endangered species listing.
        "We need a yes or no for the lizard, and the only possible answer is 'yes,' " Rosmarino said. "The scientific information is in. There is no debate."
        Others disagree.
        Chambers of commerce in Artesia and Roswell, along with county commissions in Eddy and Chaves counties, have already passed resolutions declaring their strong opposition to the listing.
        And Angela LaVolpa of Roswell goes much further in her reasons. She posted a video on YouTube several weeks ago claiming the designation of the lizard as an endangered species will lead to "marital conflict," massive unemployment, "homelessness" and "starvation."
       



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