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County prepares for effects of possible lizard conservation

ROSWELL, N.M. — A little lizard is the center of controversy again, with a Chaves County administrator vowing to work if need be to keep lands in the county available for business use.

“The lizard is back on our radar,” said Chaves County Manager Stanton Riggs at the June 25 Board of Commissioners meeting.

Riggs said that the county is working on the issue with Chaves County Public Lands Commissioner Dan Girand and the American Stewards of Liberty. American Stewards is a landowners’ advocacy and legal rights nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, that works on several issues, including preventing or removing Endangered Species Act listings when the group thinks federal protections are unnecessary.

Girand, also legislative and regulatory affairs manager for Mack Energy Corp., said the lizard listing — as well as ongoing discussions about protections for the lesser prairie chicken — could affect all sorts of business interests, not just oil and gas, in Lea, Eddy, Chaves, Roosevelt and Curry counties.

“There will be areas where they won’t want grazing to take place,” Girand said. “Anywhere there is federal land, it will be affected. It would affect wind farms — just nearly any activity.”

Both species have been an issue to area land users since the 1980s, Girand said.

The dune sagebrush lizard is again a matter of concern after two national conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service May 8 to reclassify the lizard as either endangered or threatened and to protect its habitat in southeast New Mexico and West Texas.

The Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Arizona, and Defenders of Wildlife, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., have said that the current action came about because previous agreements to protect the shinnery oaks shrubs and the sand dunes where the lizards live aren’t working and other factors are reducing the ability of the species to survive.

The major concern at this time is in Texas, said a Center for Biological Diversity scientist.

“We are concerned about New Mexico, but what really prompted the petition was the problems with the Texas plan and sand mining,” said Chris Nagano, senior scientist with the Biological Diversity group.

In 2012, conservation agreements with agencies in Texas and New Mexico led the Fish and Wildlife Service to withdraw a 2010 proposed rule that would have categorized the lizard as endangered.

Nagano said the current petition, which has not yet received a response from the Fish and Wildlife Service, results primarily because the prior agreements do not cover the sand mining that is occurring in Texas.

“The plan put together by the state of Texas is not working,” he said. “The sand mining that began in that state about a year ago has greatly affected their habitat.”

About 1,000 acres of sand dune habitats have been destroyed by new mines, according to a letter and petition sent to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.

That document listed three major reasons for the petition. The first is habitat modification and destruction not only from the relatively new activity of sand mining but, more significantly, from oil and gas activities. The groups state that the lizard is gone from about 80 percent of previously surveyed sites.

The second factor is what the groups call the “insufficient” regulatory mechanisms of the cooperative agreements. The third factor, the document states, involves both natural and manmade problems, including climate change such as increased drought, environmental contaminants from human activity and a spread of invasive species that drive out the lizard and become more prevalent due to habitat and environmental changes.

Whatever happens will take a while to occur, said Nagano. The Fish and Wildlife Service has about 90 days from the petition — or until early August — to decide whether the issues raised in the petition are worth study and consideration. Should the agency decide to move forward with consideration, it has a year to decide whether the lizard and its habitats warrant protection.

A U.S. Bureau of Land Management biologist said he does not foresee a large impact in this state no matter what happens.

“In New Mexico, we’ve worked real close with the oil and gas, and we are doing real good in the state of New Mexico,” said Randy Howard, wildlife biologist with the Pecos District of the BLM. “Avoid habitat is the No. 1 thing to do.”

He said the shinnery oaks ecosystem, also referred to by the conservation group as the Mescalero Sandhills region, starts about 35 miles east of Roswell, heads west to Highway 70 and then dips into Eddy and Lea counties.

The conservation groups’ petition did note that the New Mexico Candidate Conservation Agreement for the Mescalero Sandhills regions of the state “have slowed the loss of the lizard’s habitat.”

“We’ve got Candidate Conservation Agreements with the oil and gas companies, ” Howard said. “I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know for sure, but, if it is listed, the companies that are signed up under that CCA, they will continue on as normal. Where there is BLM land, we will continue on as normal because we avoid habitat.”

The efforts concerning the lizard first began in 1982, when the Fish and Wildlife Service studied it as a possible candidate for the Endangered Species Act. Several other times over the years, the lizard was either a subject of conversation groups’ petitions or the Fish and Wildlife Service’s candidate studies.

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Information from: Roswell Daily Record, http://www.roswell-record.com

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