GOP tries to make lizard the new spotted owl

tiny tan lizard

Dunes Sagebrush Lizard / Michael T Hill via ESA Blawg

Republicans, oil companies, Fox News, and Forbes all claim the Obama administration is sacrificing the oil industry in parts of Texas and New Mexico for a tiny, obscure lizard. Guess what? They’re overblowing their case.

For the decade the Center for Biological Diversity has been fighting for the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus), to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.  It lives mainly in 5,000 acres of shinnery oak (a tiny tree above ground that has a huge root), but the plant poisons cattle, so ranchers get rid of it.

In 2007 the IUCN Red List classified it as vulnerable. They filed a petition in 2002 and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made it a candidate, but didn’t do anything. Then in 2010 they proposed giving it actual protection.

In the world of western Republican politics, protecting endangered species is tantamount to supporting gay soldiers adopting children. They’d probably like to get rid of the endangered species act altogether–if it didn’t make such a great thing to talk about fighting.  So Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), who wants to run for Senate, decided he would stick up for the little man, the oil worker. Not, of course, for the giant oil companies that would be inconvenienced.

“Most of the oil and gas jobs in southeast New Mexico are at risk,” he said in the El Paso Times. “In the ’70s, they listed the spotted owl as endangered and it killed the entire timber industry.” Yes, that’s right, we don’t use wood anymore.

Ben Shepperd, president of the local oil association says that as drawn out as the listing has been, the wildlife service “didn’t spend enough time looking for them or the right technique to find them.” And they’d need two to five years to figure out a plan to protect them.

Of course, one way to make the process faster might be to fund ESA investigations. But conservatives like Interior Secretary Ken Salazar want to do the opposite: restrict funding for endangered species so they can use that as an excuse in court. Not against ranchers and oilmen, but against conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity.

Forbes columnist Chirstopher Helman jumped on the bandwagon, too. If the wildlife service protects the lizard, they would be overlooking the way “crude oil has been pumped from the Permian basin for nearly 100 years” and oil companies say they can keep going for decades. He says the oil companies would be thrilled to just buy up ranches and plant them with the shinnery oak, which the lizards need but cattlemen hate. Listing the lizard “would be disaster for oil companies, for the tens of thousands of workers in the Permian…for Texas, and for motorists, who would suffer the higher gas prices that would come from diminished oil supply.” So why didn’t they plant any ranch or do anything but gobble up habitat in the last nine years?

Maybe it’s because even if the lizard gets listed, it’s not going to be that big of a deal to the companies. The lizard lives on only 5% of the land in the basin, the Center for Biological Diversity says, about 500 to 3,500 acres. Also, it’s largely government land that oil companies lease. If they just had to pay the true price to the country to do their drilling–something that would have included or created a set-aside area for the species–they wouldn’t be in this position.




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